22 May 2015

The return... and then a week

If you kept track of me last year, you’ll recall that I tried to blog every couple of days during my stint on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs.  Well, I’m back at it!

Although I’m quite behind (we’ve been here 9 days already), I hope to get back into the groove of things now that we have WIFI up and running.

The flight out to St. Paul always starts in Anchorage.  Don’t worry about security on these flights though; there is none.  Feel free to carry a machete, a couple of gallons of jet fuel, or whatever your heart desires; and no, I’m not kidding.  No security.  Typical of small planes, you board just by walking up to it on the tarmac:

Our flight landed in Dillingham and sat on the runway for 20 minutes, which is typical; they often stop here to refuel and/or drop off supplies.  What wasn't typical was that I was stuck inside the plane craning my neck around, glaring out the window hoping to see a bird... any bird.  You see, I was in a new census area (think county) and I really wanted to fill in that part of my county map... but first I needed to ID a bird!  A flock of peeps flew by but I couldn't do anything with them (I needed to narrow it down to a species, remember).  Finally, probably 10 minutes in, I spotted a distant COMMON RAVEN.  I relaxed.  Before long, we were up and over the Bering Sea headed to SNP.

Once we landed, we dropped off luggage, geared up, bought food, etc.  Then it was out the door to go birding to see what was waiting for us.  At Weather Bureau Lake, a TUFTED DUCK was shadily shadowing a BARROW'S GOLDENEYE:
Here on St. Paul, the goldeneye is actually much rarer than the Tufted.  However, we had missed TUDU last year (and gotten a BAGO too) so I was much happier with the TUDU; it was a new island bird after all.

Up on the shoreline of Webster Lake, there were 3 SANDHILL CRANES, another species we missed last year.  Sweet, another new island bird:
In the road at Southwest Point, there were two BAR-TAILED GODWITS that decided to take a bath in a puddle:
These guys aren't terribly uncommon here, we had several around last year as well.  However, they're pretty rare in the Lower 48 so they're still a treat to be around.

Much more abundant are the RED-NECKED PHALAROPES that breed on the island.  Here are a couple in the Salt Lagoon:
Another common breeding species, the RED-FACED CORMORANT, is in full swing of nest-building.  Here's one gathering grass that it will use:
We've had quite a few owls around too (which seems to surprise people).  Yes, owls make it out to St. Paul.  First up, this SHORT-EARED OWL was hunting along the shores of the Salt Lagoon one evening:
We've also seen 2-3 different SNOWY OWLS this spring.  In fact, at least one gets seen just about every day somewhere on the island.  Here's one that was perched on the backside of Hutch Hill one evening:
One of the first good birds of the year came when we were scoping Pumphouse Lake.  A SKY LARK  (Code 3) was singing overhead!  I managed to snap a picture of the distant blob:
A fun fact about Sky Larks... St. Paul Island is the only place (that we know of) that this species has nested naturally in the ABA area.  Of course, a population can be found in British Columbia but that was introduced.

I was driving by Salt Lagoon (like we do many times every day) when I noticed this gorgeous adult male KING EIDER sitting on a rock.  This was the first time I'd ever seen a drake in the lagoon:
There's been an adult BALD EAGLE hanging around lately which isn't a huge surprise considering we had a couple around last year as well:
In terms of migrants, shorebirds are on the early side of things (at least when compared to songbirds).  Here's a SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER that Ashley and I found while walking around Pumphouse Lake one day:
In terms of dowitchers, SHORT-BILLED is most expected in the spring whereas LONG-BILLED is more expected in the fall.

Then there was this thing:
This is a WOOD SANDPIPER, a fairly rare species in much of the ABA area.  In western Alaska, however, they're only an uncommon migrant.  I remember my lifer WOSA came during one of the summers I worked in Barrow but I hadn't seen one again until I worked at St. Paul last year (they're pretty much annual here).  Here's another look at it, this time in flight:
A few days ago Scott called and mentioned he had a close LAYSAN ALBATROSS out at Southwest Point.  Although chasing tubenoses out here is usually a silly idea, we ventured out anyway to see what we could find.  Thousands of fulmars and shearwaters were pouring past the point, which is definitely a good sign, so we got to work.  Before long, a fishing vessel started to come in past the point.  We didn’t mind this one bit because we both got on a LAYSAN ALBATROSS mixed in the fray behind the boat.  I got 3 different looks of the bird but failed to get any pictures (well, the albatross is probably somewhere in this one):
Anyway, so yeah, that covers the first week we were here.  I didn't manage any new ABA birds but did see several new island/state birds so that's something.  I have a hunch that the next couple of days got interesting.  ;-)

16 May 2015

We spy the Kenai

Our time in Missouri went quite quickly, now that we look back on it.  eBird is telling me that I snagged 50+ state birds on this recent visit, which is a decent haul when one passes the 100 mark and starts to approach 200 for the state.  Also, Ashley and I are now the all-time Ralls County leaders.  Ha!  It doesn't take much in some of these seldom-ebirded counties!

But before long, we left the warmth and migrants and flew northward to Alaska.  However, before we were to fly out to the Pribilofs, we spent a couple of days touring some of nearby-Alaska.  We didn’t have much time to be thorough but we did want to see Homer (mainly some ALEUTIAN TERNS) and so we rented a car and went birding.

It didn’t take long before we remembered that BOREAL CHICKADEES are abundant up here.  Stop just about anywhere with spruces and you’re likely to pull a couple in:
We scoped around at Anchor Point for a while; it was nice to see some shorebirds and northern waterbirds again.   The BALD EAGLES there (and throughout the Kenai) are kinda nuts; almost too tame for comfort.  Here’s a youngster:
… and an adult:
We ended that hour stop at Anchor Point with 40 species.  The highlight were 25+ SOOTY SHEARWATERS which were flagged for being a touch early.  Here's our checklist.

The way to see ALEUTIAN TERNS in Homer is to be midway down the spit early in the morning.  The birds will be feeding on the SW side of the spit (the ocean side) and eventually cross the spit to fly farther up the bay.  We were primed and ready.  We didn’t have to wait long either; shortly after we arrived we spotted multiple terns feeding offshore.  We ended up with 11 ALEUTIAN TERNS (including 9 seen at once), a healthy number in looking back at previous totals.  Here's a dark photo of one:
It's either really embarrassing or just kind of funny that until this recent trip, I still needed RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH for my state list.  Well, I fixed that:
Another new state bird was another common species.  We saw WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS several places including this really interesting interaction.  It's a young bird begging and being fed by an adult female.  First the begging:
... and then the payload:
What I find so interesting about this is that because crossbills specialize in feeding from cones, the food it regurgitated looks to be pure pine nuts, a delicacy (and great on pesto).  That's a pretty expensive meal for this youngster!

The MILBERT’S TORTOISESHELLS were super abundant around Anchorage.   I recall one bush that had a dozen perched and another dozen swirling around it.  As far as butterflies go, I sure don’t mind tortoiseshells:
We saw a few ARCTIC WHITES down the Kenai, a species I had only seen once before.  Here’s one that stayed put for a few seconds:

It’s hard to miss the mammals up here.  Mainly, when you see a MOOSE on the side of the road, it’s hard not to notice.  Umm… they’re big:
However, the most obvious thing you can't miss is the scenery:
With that, we were packed and ready to fly out to St. Paul Island.  Did our flight actually leave or was it delayed?  Stay tuned...

07 May 2015

May in Misso

Oy!  I'm still in Missouri but there should be a big, fat asterisk with a footnote saying I'm only going to be the Lower 48 for another 2 days.  Then... five months in Alaska.

But first, I really have been having a blast being in this part of the country at this time of year.  I can't decide which I've enjoyed more... having some migrants around or being able to sit and watch thunderstorms roll through (as one is doing right now).  Either way, here are some pictures from the past week or so.

We have done just a little bit of exploring locally but some of the spots we've birded have been productive.  For example, there is a wooded area north of Hannibal called Steyermark Woods and because it was a hotspot in eBird, we decided to take a look around one morning.  The forest was lush and the birds were noisy; it was a good time.  Here's a Jack-in-the-Pulpit:
You can see our checklist here.  You'll notice some fun warblers like the many WORM-EATING (they were busy counter-singing each other) and a whole slew of KENTUCKY WARBLERS.  

We also ventured up into Iowa for a day or two to visit family.  If you know where to look, like my sister did, there are some very stunning, bluebell-filled woods near Waterloo:
On our drive south back towards Missouri, we stopped at a few spots in SE Iowa to revisit some former haunts of ours.  Click the name for the checklist:

Lacey-Keosaqua State Park.  We actually camped here one night (and enjoyed some crazy strong thunderstorms in the process) and awoke to some fun birding.  We ended with 70+ species, 15 species of warblers (including at least 6 KENTUCKYS, 1 WORM-EATING, 4 GOLDEN-WINGED), and even a BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO that was singing in the middle of the night after the storms passed.

Shimek State Forest -- Donnellson Unit.  Highlights here included another BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO and 11 species of warblers including HOODED, BLUE-WINGED, and GOLDEN-WINGED.  The Chorus Frogs were fun too:
Shimek State Forest -- Croton Unit.  This is usually a reliable spot for some neat SE Iowa birds and it didn't disappoint on this visit either (despite it being after noon).  We had things like YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT, WHITE-EYED VIREO, WORM-EATING WARBLER, and a couple of KENTUCKY WARBLERS.  Here's one of the latter that perched up:
The land where Ash's family lives has been alive with all sorts of birds.  Highlights from the last couple of days include about 15 species of warblers, both GRAY-CHEEKED and SWAINSON'S THRUSHES, and even several BLACK-BILLED CUCKOOS that seem to be setting up camp.  In fact, this cuckoo photo I took caught someone's attention on Flickr:
Most of my photos get maybe a hundred views (and that's if I'm lucky) but someone apparently thought this was worthy of being added to some Flickr group and because of that, it's already amassed 6000+ views.  Ha!  What a joke.  Wickedly cool species though, I'd have a hard time denying that.

We also went birding in St. Louis.  More specifically, there was this field that was supposed to host a reliable flock of cardinals.  We spent several hours observing and, indeed, they were there:
.... and because I'm a nerd who never stops looking for real birds, I made an eBird checklist for our time there, seen here.

I know I mentioned my county map in a previous post.  I added ~40 new counties on the CA --> MO drive which was a fun chunk of county listing.  I also visited 5 new counties in Iowa on my recent drive through.  Here's the up-to-date May version (not that anyone finds this that interesting!):

30 April 2015

Finding NEMO

After having been in California for the past several springs, I was really looking forward to spending some quality time in the eastern half of the country during spring migration.  After all, it's there that I grew up and did most of my birding.  Nothing against spring in California but I found myself seriously craving to hear something like a parula.  Well, that recently came to fruition; we're in northeast Missouri for another 10 days before we depart for Alaska.

That has translated to us being around several songsters that we hadn't heard in years.  For example, we stepped outside that first day and heard the easily-recognizable song of a BLUE-WINGED WARBLER and a PRAIRIE WARBLER that have set up territories nearby.  Pretty fun yard breeders, right?  They didn't want to play around too much but I did manage some photo documentation of the PRAW:
Another common songster that I haven't been around in quite a while is the SUMMER TANAGER.  These guys are borderline abundant here.  How is this not the state bird of Missouri?  Here's a male:
I'm not sure I've spent time in many places where KENTUCKY WARBLER is one of the most abundant breeding warbler species.  So far that seems to be the case here where there are several with territories on this parcel of land.  They've been perching up quite high while singing which allowed for this photo:
Harder to get pictures of are the multiple displaying AMERICAN WOODCOCKS that come out at dusk every night.  Although, to be fair, sometimes their distinctive calls are almost drowned out... by singing EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILLS or the extremely vociferous BARRED OWLS that also use this land.

We've tallied about 85 species in the past couple of days here in Missouri but that's without much exploring and birding away from the property (I mean, with a first eBird county record of BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO from the back deck, why venture farther afield?).  We HAVE ventured to a couple of local spots though (this and this).

I've also enjoyed being around some insects I haven't seen in many years.  The following butterfly, well, I had never seen it before, it was a lifer:
Yes, it's kind of goofy to post such a crappy in-flight photo of a FALCATE ORANGETIP but I'm not in this for any kind of prize.  Besides, a female posed later on:
There have been some anglewings around too including MOURNING CLOAK, EASTERN COMMA, and this QUESTION MARK:
That's all for now although I'm sure you can expect another post from the L48 before too long.

28 April 2015

The drive

We recently up and moved out of California.  We're headed to St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea in a few weeks but wanted to drive east first.  This post, in essence, is 2000+ miles of driving boiled down to a couple of photos.

Our first real target was HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK which is only found in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.  I had only seen this species once before (and that was in August or something) so we didn't really know what we were doing.  There are surprisingly-few April eBird records of this year-round resident but we ventured up anyway.  The scenery is still spectacular in April:
Another thing that became evident was that Ashley was having a good day spotting things!  Look at the above photo and imagine a lone chicken sitting on one of those mountain tops.   Then look below at what Ashley spotted while scoping for snowcocks from that very spot:
Yes indeed, she found her lifer snowcock from like a mile or two away!  It was also fun to hear this species calling repeatedly (which we were able to do from the Glacier Overlook).

We poked around a few other spots in Lamoille Canyon and enjoyed things like SAGE THRASHERS, BREWER'S SPARROWS, BLACK ROSY-FINCHES, CANYON WRENS, and this adult GREAT HORNED OWL sitting guard over one of its youngsters (evidenced here by a ball of down):
Driving farther down the canyon, Ash suddenly told me to back up.  I did.  She had spotted two CHUKARS.  Like the snowcocks, this is an introduced species to North America.  However, it's been established in rocky habitats of the West for some time.  Here's one of the two that Ashley spotted:
Fast forward a day or two to when we drove through Colorado.  We took a slight detour (in lat/long as well as elevation) and stopped by Loveland Pass.  The goal was simple; we wanted ptarmigan.  The first thing to greet us though was some premier scenery (as one would expect at 12,000 feet in Colorado):
It didn't take long before Ashley continued her sharp-eyes exhibit and spotted a distant WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN foraging next to some skiers.  We investigated further.  It's a mostly white bird in a mostly white landscape but when you see it properly, it's a really freaking cool species:
This bird was pretty clearly habituated to people; it actually approached us and got within ~10 feet!
If you haven't looked at the fully-feathered feet of ptarmigan before, here's your chance.  This adaptation is perfect for their high-altitude haunts:
We were in the Salina area of Kansas one night and decided to give a nearby eBird hotspot a try.  For being only a few miles from where we were staying, we were happy to surround ourselves with some eastern species again.  We visited it on a windy afternoon (checklist here) but we were glad we did; we saw things like UPLAND SANDPIPER and a nice variety of other shorbs.  We had enough fun that we returned the next morning (checklist here) and saw some species we missed the evening before.  We left Saline County with a new county list of 58.

One of our last stops was in eastern Kansas.  To be more exact, we briefly spun through Manhattan where both Ashley and I lived.  It was fantastic to see the Flint Hills once again (although it was a cold and blustery day):
Rest assured, by the time we arrived at our destination in NE Missouri, I had accrued a long list of new counties!  I'm sure I'll post my updated county map at some point.