29 July 2014

Don't touch the bumblebee's house!

Finally, I have other things to blame for not getting a timely blog post written!  Usually it’s just my indolence but this time I get to point to our internet problems (half the town lost their internet for a while) and the fact that I’ve actually been working.  Yes, when one of these anchors offshore, better brace yourself:
So yes, we occasionally get cruise ships that unload 100-300 people on our shores leaving us to transport them, show them the bird cliffs, the church, etc.  Sometimes they speak English, sometimes they don’t.  I’ve grown accustomed to standing next to my scope with my finger pointing to my open Sibley Guide while Germans line up to see their first puffin.   Good times!  Oh yeah, puffins, here’s one:
While we’re on the subject of boats though, this pollock processor ship pulled next to shore for a few minutes the other morning:
Apparently they were unloading an injured worker before heading back out to sea.  In the meantime, they were dumping offal which was attracting a crapload of NORTHERN FULMARS… as in thousands.  We scanned for an albatross or anything else goofy but the best I could do were a couple of SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS and my first (and long overdue) island POMARINE JAEGER.  Here are a few fulmars though (pretty much every bird you see is a fulmar):
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I… drum roll… got to shave again already!  Yes, I managed to snag another new ABA bird just a few days ago.  I found myself at Southwest Point and although it was completely socked in with fog, we had a northwest wind at about 15 mph.  I patiently waited and sure enough, the fog started to recede for a bit.  There was a light stream of NORTHERN FULMARS passing by north to south, perhaps about 1000… and that’s when the MOTTLED PETREL flew by.  After scanning through so many fulmars and shearwaters during the past 2-3 months, a bold pterodroma petrel flying by was nothing short of a refreshing slap to the face.  It was a truly striking bird and one that I’d desperately hoped for during my gig here.  I seawatched for another couple of hours hoping for more… and although I was granted one more Mottled, that was about it. 

Lots of the visitors spend time watching the NORTHERN FUR SEALS from the seal blinds that we have on the island.  Although the colonies are usually pretty noisy, sometimes the seals look completely dead.  For example, here’s a male (left), female (lower right), and pup (middle) that look entirely exhausted:
Sometimes the seals are somewhat close to the blind.  As in….
The weather has remained quite lethargic lately; we've had no storms and certainly no strong winds to speak of.  However, we still have seen a few migrant shorebirds coming/going.  One such bird was yet another adult RED-NECKED STINT on Pumphouse Lake that stayed for 2 days.  This is already our 4th adult RNST of the year and we haven’t even hit the season for the more-numerous juveniles.
Tis the time for tattlers too.  Having not spent a ton of time around Gray-tailed, I’ve been studying various field marks on Wanderings.  For example, this photo is plenty good enough to clinch an ID of WANDERING TATTLER if you know what you’re looking at (for starters, focus on where the eyelines meet; maybe someday I’ll be able to post a helpful comparison which will then give meaning to what I'm showing):
Many species are starting to molt out of their high-breeding plumages (I’ve seen basic-plumaged Tufted Puffins and molting Pigeon Guillemots already).  Even the gaudy RED-FACED CORMORANTS aren’t as jaw-dropping anymore.  Here’s an adult but you’ll notice the reduced white on the flanks and the lack of the two tufts on the head:
Some cormorants were never that gaudy to begin with this year.  Here’s a youngster which, although reduced in color, is still striking when you can see the blue coming in under the bill:
I’ll close with a remarkable flower; MONKSHOOD:
Currently, this flower is one of the most noticeable blooming plants on the island.  As you can see, their deep purple color goes quite nicely with the deep greens.  But hold up... there are other names for this flower such as Wolf's Bane, Leopard's Bane, and Devil's Helmet.  You see, this flower is deadly poisonous.  Historically, the toxins extracted from this plant were used to kill wolves, hence the name Wolf's Bane.  In fact, people all around the world have used these plants for centuries for the potent poison; tribes poisoned their arrows and spears for hunting animals (ibex, tigers, foxes, bears, etc).  The Chinese, well, they even used it in warfare to poison an enemies' water supply.  Witches smeared Monkshood on their broomsticks and bodies, drank a dram of the herb belladonna and went "flying".

The native Aleuts here in western Alaska knew of this poison too and called this plant Anisnaadam Ulax (or "Bumblebee's House").  To ensure children would stay away from it, mothers would warn the children that if they touched the flower, a bumblebee would come out and sting them.  The native Aleuts would also tip their lances with Monkshood for whale hunting.  Typically, one hunter in a kayak would stalk the whale and once lanced, the whale would become paralyzed and would drown.

You should wear gloves to touch any part of the plant (whoops).  If you take in large doses, they say death is almost instantaneous.  On that note, I'll leave you with some cut-and-pasted cultural references from Wikipedia:

  • In Greek mythologyMedea attempted to poison Theseus with a cup of wine poisoned with wolfsbane. However Aegeus, his father, interceded when he discerned his identity.[19]
  • Shakespeare, in Henry IV Part II Act 4 Scene 4 refers to aconite, alongside rash gunpowder, working as strongly as the "venom of suggestion" to break up close relationships.
  • Wolfsbane is mentioned in one of the verses of the Wiccan Rede.
  • The 1941 film The Wolf Man suggests people can become werewolves when Wolfbane blooms.
  • In The Vampire Diaries, wolfsbane is the counterpart of vervain, which affects vampires, to debilitate werewolves and hybrids.
  • Wolfsbane in the Harry Potter series of Fantasy novels is a toxic plant that can be used as an ingredient in the Wolfsbane Potion, a potion werewolves use to maintain their rationality and conscience when transformed into a wolf.
  • In the 1931 classic horror film, "Dracula" starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula and Helen Chandler as Mina Seward, reference is made in regards to wolfbane (aconitum). Towards the end of the film, "Van Helsing holds up a sprig of wolfbane". Van Helsing educates the nurse protecting Mina from Count Dracula to place sprigs of wolfbane around Mina's neck for protection. Furthermore, he instructs that wolfane is a plant that grows in central Europe. There the natives use it to protect themselves against vampires. As long as the wolfbane is present in Mina's bedroom, she will be safe from Count Dracula. During the night, Count Dracula desires to visit Mina. He appears outside her window in the form of a flying bat. He causes the nurse to become drowsy and when she awakes from his spell, she removes the sprigs of wolfbane placing it in a hallway chest of drawers. With the removal of the wolfbane from Mina's room, Count Dracula mysteriously appears and transport Mina to the dungeon of the castle.[20]
  • In the NBC series Grimm, wolfsbane is rubbed on the person's skin to prevent a Blutbad (a wolf-like Wesen, or creature that a Grimm can differentiate from normal human beings) from detecting their scent.
  • In the TV series Dexter (Season 7), the character Hannah McKay uses aconite to poison some of her victims.
  • In the television series Midsomer Murders, season 4, episode 1 ("Garden of Death"), aconite is used as a murder weapon, mixed into fettucine with pesto to mask the taste.[21]
  • In Episode 9 of the TV Series American Horror Story: Coven, the resurrected Myrtle Snow poisons former fellow Witches council members with Monkshood laced Melonballs at a private dinner party hosted by Snow herself.

25 July 2014

LSAP remaineth

As we enter the last week of July, I’m looking forward to August and hoping some stray stints or odd shorebirds get blown in.  But before you accuse me of being ungrateful, I AM happy the LESSER SAND-PLOVER is still present.  Here are some more recent photos of it:

At this point in the season we get to search through juvenile shorebirds including the local breeders.  If you flip open your trusty bird book and look at juvenile LEAST SANDPIPER, you’ll notice it can look quite similar to LONG-TOED STINT.  Yesterday was the first, bright juvenile LEAST SANDPIPER I’ve seen; time to start being more careful!  Of course, you can still see odd feathering, some remnant down, on the back of the head which is an obvious clue:
Another species we're seeing plenty of juveniles of is RED-NECKED PHALAROPE.  They’re quite distinct with bright orange braces on an otherwise dark mantle:
Speaking of youngsters, this bleached-out photo shows a young NORTHERN FULMAR next to a preening parent:
Much less angelic is this gull up at the Webster Seawatch.  Best I can tell, it’s a 1st-summer going into 2nd-winter AMERICAN (smithsonianus) HERRING GULL:
I'll leave you with a stunner, the crowd-favorite TUFTED PUFFIN:

22 July 2014

Attack of the gastropods!

As I write this, a dreary day with frequent misty squalls is passing by outside.  The wind is out of the west but a measly 15 mph isn’t quite the power we hope for (crank it up to 50+, fine by us).

Weather notwithstanding, I did venture out for a bit but the dense fog at Southwest Point instantly indicated that bringing my scope was far too optimistic of me.  Instead I stumbled around the lava field for a while hoping for anything to pop up from the soaked vegetation.  The only thing that popped was an idea into my head; get the heck out of here and head to Pumphouse Lake to scan shorebirds.

As I headed back east, I stopped briefly at Antone Slough to check on the shorebird habitat.  It appears as if the LEAST SANDPIPERS that bred there have now departed the slough.  However, a distinctive call caught my attention through the pitter-patter of the rain, it was a PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER.  Unzipping my coat and pulling out my camera, I only managed a picture of it flying away:
This is the third PAGP I’ve had this fall despite July being on the early side for this species.

I was checking Zapadni Ravine when I found this.  Gadzooks, it’s a mollusk!  A terrestrial gastropod!  Ok, fine, call it a slug if you must.  Regardless, it's the first I’ve seen on the island:
Sometimes I don’t have to leave my room to see interesting wildlife.  Just out my bedroom window, this ARCTIC FOX was intent on scavenging some spilled Pringles potato chips and rushing them off to its kits.  Nothing like healthy diet of sour cream Pringles to raise a youngster:
I’m not sure if any other guides/birders that have worked on St. Paul have tried to do this… but I figured I’d try to snap a picture of as many of the bird species here as I can.  A photo list, if you will.  Who knows, maybe I’ll leave with the record of bird species photographed in a year on St. Paul??  Anyway, what that translates to is a lot of crappy photos.  Case and point, this distant RED-BREASTED MERGANSER on a rainy day:
I may as well mention that Pumphouse Lake continues to host many shorebirds.  The LESSER SAND-PLOVER continued at least through today.  There was also a WESTERN SANDPIPER, 20+ PECTORAL SANDPIPERS, and 3 LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS present.  This lake has already produced RED-NECKED STINT, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, and RUFF this year... it's not far fetched to predict that this lake will strike again.

Yesterday evening I ventured up to Northeast Point to have a look around.  One of the highlights was finding a flock of 19 KING EIDERS swimming offshore.  After seeing 1-2 almost on a daily basis most of this summer, seeing a flock like this was quite refreshing:
Lastly, as I was driving back, I crested a hill and had to swerve at the last second to avoid hitting two ROCK SANDPIPER chicks in the road.  I stopped, hopped out, and ventured back to make sure I missed them.   Thankfully I did.  Cute little guy, eh?  No wonder I’ve worked with shorebirds for so long!

20 July 2014


When I worked at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory last fall, I blogged every day.  It was just part of my daily routine.  As you've noticed so far this spring/summer, blogging every day is NOT in the cards.  For example, it's been a whole 4 days since my last update.  Ages, I know.  Try to curb your enthusiasm with this new entry.

I knew the day was coming, I mentioned it on here several times.  The occasion?  I SHAVED.  More importantly, that indicates that I finally got a new ABA bird after a full three week gap.  It came yesterday when we had our first GRAY-TAILED TATTLER of the season.  Although I only initially heard the bird, I birded some on my own last night and managed to relocate it at a different location.  
Why isn't it a Wandering Tattler, the more expected tattler species?  Note the white belly, white undertail, bold supercilium behind the eye, etc.  This species breeds in northeast Siberia and then migrates south to southeast Asia and Australia.  Just like the Red-necked Stint and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, this vagrant can actually be common here on St. Paul Island.  I have a feeling that this was the first of MANY GTTAs.

So now with this expected lifer "out of the way", what will be my next one and how long will my beard have to grow before it happens???  Maybe it'll be a Little Stint?  Or Temminck's Stint?  You see, shorebirds are some of the earliest fall migrants in much of North America.  The same is definitely true here; late-July and August are the peak times for southbound sandpipers, plovers, etc.  This past week provided us with a nice selection of shorebirds, about 18 species worth.  Perhaps most impressive have been the number of adult PECTORAL SANDPIPERS that have been using Pumphouse Lake lately (the number is up to 30-35 already).  However, probably the gaudiest of the recent visitors is this male LESSER SAND-PLOVER that's been present on-and-off at Pumphouse Lake:
This is another species that breeds in Siberia and, like the others, is an uncommon but expected migrant here.

Not all of the rare shorebirds that find themselves on our beaches and wetlands are Asian-only breeders.  We found a BAIRD'S SANDPIPER the other day which, so far, has stuck faithful to Pumphouse Lake.  This ties the earliest fall arrival of that species here on St. Paul Island.  Here is a photo showing the scaly mantle, long attenuated look (long wings), black legs, etc etc:
We've had a bit of north and west wind lately and so I naturally drifted towards a bit of seawatching.  One particular day, this adult intermediate-morph PARASITIC JAEGER decided to fly directly overhead.  Ok, it's a bit backlit but come on, I seriously don't care:
Just today I went up to Marunich to take a look around.  There are still piles of RUDDY TURNSTONES there, probably between 200-300.  I also saw species like a KING EIDER, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, PACIFIC LOON, and 3 WANDERING TATTLERS.  Oh, and here's a nasty thing that probably is, or has some, SLATY-BACKED GULL in it:
Anyway, to the one reader who reads my posts all the way to the end, this is for you:

16 July 2014

These questions three

It’s mid-July, one of the quietest parts of the summer here on St. Paul Island.  Most of the species have chicks or fully-fledged young by now and that makes for some interesting birding.  For example, a check of Antone Slough yielded young of two shorebird species.  First, however, this adult LEAST SANDPIPER acted as the bridge-keeper near the plank bridge.  I was not afraid. 
A little later on, I saw a young LEAST SANDPIPER running about.  I guessed it wasn’t able to fly yet but alas, it jumped up and few away when I continued on my route.  Here's a distant pic of the little guy:
LEAST SANDPIPERS aren’t abundant breeders here; they’re fairly uncommon.  However, a much more common breeding shorebird is the RED-NECKED PHALAROPE.  Antone Slough also provided me with a quick glimpse of one of these striking chicks swimming for cover:
I ventured up to Marunich, a beach on the north side of the island, to see what shorebirds were feeding on the kelp.  As expected, ROCK SANDPIPERS dominated the scene; hundreds were milling about.  Here’s a view of our local umbrina subspecies:
However, this nearby ROCK SANDPIPER caught my attention:
It was a touch smaller and much darker overall (compare this to the previous bird).  This is likely from one of the rarer subspecies that DOESN’T breed on St. Paul.

A little farther down the beach I found a RED-NECKED STINT feeding on the kelp (just like I did there on 5 June):
This makes it my 5th day so far on St. Paul with a RED-NECKED STINT.  This bird is a touch paler than the stint we had at Pumphouse Lake a couple of days ago and so probably a different bird.

An obvious indicator that shorebird migration is well underway are the RUDDY TURNSTONES which still are piling onto the beaches at Marunich.   I had 100+ there on my last visit.
The best shorebird habitat right now continues to be at Pumphouse Lake.  For example, up to 7 PECTORAL SANDPIPERS are present which is pretty notable.  Also, the adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER is still present (9th day now).  Yesterday, the LESSER SAND-PLOVER made a quick appearance there as well although it left before some of us arrived.

In case you’re following the facial hair saga, I’m still waiting on my lifer Gray-tailed Tattler but it literally can happen any day now.  I did have two WANDERING TATTLERS today though; one at Southwest Point and another at Antone Lake/Wall.  I wasn’t the only keen pair of eyes at Southwest Point though.  The HARBOR SEALS, which are common there, are pretty distinctive from a distance; big eyes, pale gray coloring, and periscoping-style of looking about:
Switching gears, I also spent some time around RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKES today, mainly at Weather Bureau Lake and Tonki Point.  I took this photo to illustrate how the mantle color differs between the two species of kittiwakes; you’ll see the mantle is a touch darker on the bird in front compared to the three behind it:
This digiscoped photo also shows the darker mantle of RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKES:
As per the norm, I’ll close with a flower picture.  This particular one is called a Brook Saxifrage.  Peculiar little thing with the red stems and small white flowers... and yet it's still a small wonder I managed to ID it:
Anyway, hopefully my next post will have some high-caliber rarity crushage.

14 July 2014


Come tomorrow, I'll have been on St. Paul Island for 2 months.  That also means that I have only 3 more months.  Hopefully some more exciting birds will be sprinkled throughout.  Speaking of that, I wouldn't mind a shave but I'm waiting on my next ABA lifer before I do that.  :-(

Here on St. Paul we're seeing more fall shorebirds arriving almost on a daily basis.  The beach at Marunich now has 70+ RUDDY TURNSTONES whereas a week ago there were hardly 10 around.  Turnstones are showing up in a lot more places too including Southwest Point, Webster Lake, Salt Lagoon, East Landing, and this one at Pumphouse Lake:
However, ROCK SANDPIPERS are still the omnipresent and abundant shorebird that they've been thus far except now we get to enjoy the youngsters that just hatched this summer.  Note the white and buffy edging to the mantle and scapulars as well as the lack of a black belly patch:
Uncommon at this point in July are PECTORAL SANDPIPERS but I surprisingly had 7 of them at Pumphouse Lake last night.  Here's one I digiscoped with my phone:
I should also mention that one of our other guides, Glen, had a LESSER SAND-PLOVER do a flyby a day or two ago at Weather Bureau Lake.  It was never relocated but hopefully one will settle in somewhere for viewing.

We've also been seeing a few more large gulls around too (finally).  My group and I stopped at East Landing yesterday and found this pale-eyed, dark-mantled gull.  Although the primaries are worn and bleached out, we're fairly certain it's a 3rd-cycle SLATY-BACKED GULL:
All the books describe the tip of the bill of a SBGU as being less "bulbous" when compared to Glaucous-winged or Western Gull.  Here was my chance to compare it with a Glaucous-winged and.... hark, tis less bulbous:
This morning I stumbled on this.... thing... out at Southwest Point.  Given that the wingtips are an obvious shade or two darker than the mantle (but not black), I think it's a good candidate for a GLAUCOUS-WINGED x HERRING GULL hybrid:
I'll close with a wildflower.  I was walking the road along the upper cut at Polovina Hill when I looked down the hillside to see a giant patch of large, yellow flowers.  They didn't strike me as any of the typical ones I've been seeing so I investigated and snapped a photo:
Turns out, these are ROSS' AVENS.  Our plant guide says it is uncommon on the island but easily found in its habitat.  The first location they mention is the east flank of Polovina Hill.  Yep indeed, that's where I was.