28 June 2014

Late June update

Some folks have asked about the weather here on St. Paul.  Lately, it’s been mostly overcast with frequent squalls of mist… just to turn around and become sunny again for a bit.  Temperatures are generally in the 40s these days but with the oft strong winds out of the north, windchills can dip into the 30s.

We’ve essentially reached the summer season here on St. Paul Island.  Spring migrants are essentially nonexistent and the breeding residents are hitting high gear.  Both species murres are abundant breeders here; note the segregation of THICK-BILLED MURRES (top) and COMMON MURRES (bottom).  Notice the darker back color of the former and the lack of white on the bill of the latter:
Here’s a closer view of a THICK-BILLED MURRE:
If you’re spending time at the cliffs at Tolstoi Point, you might hear the distinctive song of our local PACIFIC WRENS wafting along the cliffs.  With a sharp eye, you might spot one perched on a rock ledge or in this case, under the lip of the cliff-top vegetation:
We’re still seeing a few birds here and there that aren’t breeders.  One example is this ARCTIC TERN that has been popping up in random places the past few days.  I know, it’s flying away but it’s still good enough for ID purposes:
Another nonbreeder (and honestly, perhaps a fall migrant already) was this adult WESTERN SANDPIPER on Pumphouse Lake.  Note the black legs, long bill, traces of rufous on the scaps and head, and the small arrowhead-shaped markings down the sides:
I’ll end with a few wildflower pics.  The omnipresent NOOTKA LUPINE is in full-force and its purple flowers will sometimes blanket the landscape:
Lastly, I took this photo yesterday in Antone Slough and looked it up when I got home; it’s SALTMARSH STARWORT and it’s said to be present only at two locations on the island (Antone Slough being one of them):

25 June 2014


When I woke up the other day, I didn’t imagine that at some point I’d be rushing around the house, fearing a potential tsunami… but I suppose no one really does.

It was my day off and I was browsing around online when I happened to check on the weather and noticed a big red banner in the corner.  “Tsunami Warning”?  Hmmm… I raised my eyes from my screen and sure enough, our local siren was indeed sounding.  I looked back down at the screen, it was 1:15 PM… it wasn’t noon (and the siren sounds every day at noon). 

It turns out there was an earthquake measuring 8.0 down near Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands and all signs pointed towards a potential tsunami.  Experts were forecasting it to arrive at St. Paul Island shortly after 3 PM.  I glanced outside; everyone was zooming by in trucks, ATVs, etc, you could tell something was going on, this wasn’t normal.  Once in a while a fire truck with its flashing lights would rumble by.  It was obvious that the locals were taking it seriously and just about then, we figured we should too.  We made some phone calls, gathered some important personal belongings, and jumped in the truck.  We would drive up to Tolstoi Point which was chosen because a) it overlooks the harbor/town and b) it is a cliff face at least 100 feet high.  What better vantage point to watch an incoming wave?  We settled in and waited.

A glance across the harbor to a different hill above town, you’ll see trucks and people milling about:
As we waited, 3 PM came and went… no wave.  Reports starting coming in that tsunami waves were indeed hitting other islands in the Aleutians but that they were all less than 6 inches high.  WHAT?!  Pretty scary stuff, huh?  We all started filing back into town.  After the fact, we learned that St. Paul Island was in fact on the receiving end of a tsunami… but that it was only a slight surge 5 inches high.  Of course, it came and went and nary a person even noticed it.  Good times…

Back to birds, which I might add were just doing what they always do, worrying about food, mating, and raising chicks.  I should add that we recently had a stretch of nice weather which, sadly, our rarities also found favorable; they’ve all departed.  No more Oriental or Common cuckoos, no more Common Rosefinch, etc.  It’s been a good run though.

The SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS on Pumphouse Lake are going bonkers these days; there must be at least 8-10 of them out there including this one:
There are plenty of signs on the cliffs these days pointing towards new eggs being laid, new chicks hatching, etc.  Here’s a THICK-BILLED MURRE standing guard over its egg:
The NORTHERN FULMARS are getting cozy with a little allopreening:
Speaking of NORTHERN FULMARS though, it was a blast yesterday getting some in-flight shots of these as they wafted by at eye level at Ridge Wall:
The roaming hoard of the 7 killer swans continue to wreck havoc island-wide.  Crushing the souls of all who glance at them, they continue to look pretty and graceful.  Here’s a comparison picture showing the American (“Whistling”) race on the left and the Eurasian (“Bewick’s”) race on the right.  Note the dramatic difference in the amount of yellow on the bill:
A couple of clients and I were lucky to stumble on a great bird last night at Marunich (north side of the island).  Was it an Asian stray?  Was it a lifer for everyone?  Well, no, neither.  It’s actually a species I’ve seen tens of thousands of… but it’s all about context.  SURF SCOTERS are very rare here and the below photographed one represents the first photo-documented record ever for the Pribilof Islands:
I’ll close with a flower picture, my first Arctic Starflower I’ve seen on the island:
That's all for now.  I’ll hopefully post again in a day or two with another update from St. Paul Island.

22 June 2014

Five pics on a Sunday

Well, I'm feeling better… kind of.  My voice lasted for better part of a day of guiding before it started giving out again.  That’s what I get for being a quiet person who needs to be otherwise for work.  Despite this, my camera still works properly and my fingers are still capable of pounding out a quick blog post so here we go….

A visit to the “close kittiwake cliffs” on the west side of the island will provide many opportunities for watching these unusual kittiwakes.  The trick, once you’ve seen your first one or two, is to enjoy this species without actually seeing the red legs.  Here’s an example of how you can start:
There are also quite a few RED-FACED CORMORANTS out there too.  Although none of their nests are in plain sight on the close kittiwake cliffs, you can often spy them spying on you:
If you want an alcid that will pose, look no further than the PARAKEET AUKLETS on St. Paul.  The details of their bill, eyes, and face plumes are downright shocking and straight-up goofy when you get a chance to see them up close:
There are a few endemic and near-endemic things you can look for on St. Paul.  One of those is the Pribilof subspecies of PACIFIC WREN (alascensis).  This subspecies is literally only found on 3 islands in the world and St. Paul is one of them.  If you visit, the cliffs at Tolstoi Point have been our most reliable spot for finding them this year:
I’ll end with a flower; the Alaska Spring Beauty... which is blooming in summer now that the summer solstice just occurred:

20 June 2014


When I left off last time, I was heading on a chase.  You see, a few moments earlier, Scott had called in a SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT from the NE corner of the island.  Us three guides headed up and arrived near the Webster Gate to spread out to walk the short-but-growing celery patch.  We weren’t even a few minutes in before the rubythroat popped up, perched in the open for a few seconds, and flew a short distance before diving back into cover.  The look was fantastic even though it was short; I didn’t manage any photos but seeing the bird was the important thing.  This Asian vagrant was a lifer for all of us and the first here since 2011.

While we were in the area, we checked on Hutchinson Hill and yes, the COMMON ROSEFINCH was still present.  With the wind still howling from the northwest, we wouldn’t really expect that bird to leave the area of shelter so it still being there was a pretty sure bet:
The following day was unique; it was the first day that we had absolutely no clients actively on the island.  So, naturally, we birded the entire island anyway.  I started by birding the southwest corner of the island, specially to seawatch from Southwest Point.  It was a pleasant day but I didn’t see anything too noteworthy in terms of waterbirds from the point.  Instead, I did see a COMMON REDPOLL perched a little ways ahead of me on a rock:
Just beyond the redpoll a splash of yellow caught my eye; I raised my bins to find an EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL perched there.  Knowing that I had never captured a photo of this species, I was quick to snap a few distant shots.  Of course, I also enjoyed watching the bird through the scope for quite a while too:
Oddly enough, it even sang once or twice.  These migrant wagtails are not exceedingly rare here (they do breed in western Alaska) but they're never common either.  Here it is again:
Because of the two uncommon songbirds I had just found at the point, I figured the nearby lava fields might be worth checking too.  I meandered around, not finding much at all.  A flock of 13 CACKLING GEESE were about the most interesting thing I had until... I heard something odd.   A sound I wasn’t familiar with was wafting down from above… somewhere.  I finally spotted the culprit; it looked like a SWALLOW of some sorts.  Immediately I suspected what was happening and I raised my camera to try to get some documentation photos before the bird disappeared.  The swallow had an all white rump; I had just found a Code 4 COMMON HOUSE-MARTIN.

If you know what to look for, these horrible photos DO confirm its identity.  Take a look and see if you can see the white rump:
Anyway, I called the other guides but an aerial flyer like this would be hard to chase.  So far, no one else has seen this particular bird but who knows, it might still be around the island somewhere.

This is the 8th occurrence of this species on St. Paul.  Here are the years they've been seen here:

1974 (this bird represented the second North American record)

I also stopped by Antone Slough where the local RED-NECKED PHALAROPES were simply stunning in the nice light.  I took way too many photos but I’ll limit myself to posting one photo for now:
Last but not least, we checked Hutchinson Hill again just last night to see if the COMMON ROSEFINCH was still present.  It was:
It's been a fun couple of days.  Unfortunately, our winds have since changed and are now coming out of the east.  Stay tuned, maybe we'll continue to stumble on some good stuff....

18 June 2014


It’s time for a blog update… despite me still being quite under the weather and despite me not doing much birding the last several days.

However, when a text from another guide comes in saying “Common Rosefinch at Hutch Cut”, I was out the door in less than a minute.  Scott and his group found this female up in the northeast corner of the island last evening:
The female COMMON ROSEFINCH is not a glorious-looking rarity, true, you basically are looking for a House Finch.  However, it’s still a really nice Asian vagrant (ABA Code 4) and this particular bird represents the 7th Pribilof record.

Today I dragged my sick self up into Zap Ravine and to the quarry.  Not much was happening in the ravine although a flash of movement caught my eye as soon as I dropped down into the first stretch.  I wasn’t sure what it was or even exactly where it was, it was just a split second glimpse of movement in my peripheries.  Oh well.  When I was in the van leaving the ravine about 20 minutes later, Scott called from down the road wondering if I flushed a cuckoo from the ravine… because there was one right in the road just beyond the seal blind.  Hmmmm.

Anyway, I figured I'd spend a few seconds with this bird because, you know, it IS a rare vagrant after all despite this season being rather epic for them around western Alaska:
Some views give it a slight buffy look to the undertail (here we go again).  But the underwing bar just isn’t very “contrasty”.  First, a pic giving a slight buffy impression (although not as much as the ORCU we still have around):
But I'd argue that the bar going up the middle of the underwing isn't as contrasting as you would expect on an ORCU:
After that, I explored in the quarry some and found the continuing COMMON CUCKOO at the end of the upper cut.  At least one cuckoo (sometimes two) has been at this location for the past week:
The island’s BALD EAGLE was hanging out along the lip of the quarry this morning; something I hadn’t seen yet.  To be fair though, it's a big bird and it gets around easily enough:
Anyway, so far, things have remained fairly interesting birdwise... including a call I just got saying that Scott and his group just found a SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT.  Hmm, time to yank a vehicular device out of park, through neutral, and into a gear for a swift delivery to NE Point.

15 June 2014

Swiftless in Seattle

It’s been a busy couple of days here on St. Paul, so much so that I promptly lost my voice completely yesterday.  Fail.  That doesn't stop me from typing though... pretty much the only form of communication I'm capable of at the moment.

RED-FACED CORMORANTS are understandably one of the targets of many visiting birders (within North America, this is an Alaska-only specialty).  The other day, there were several quite close to us on the cliffs at Reef Point including this sharp adult taking a peek at us from behind a grass clump:
Yes, I know what you're thinking... the crazy tufts ARE actually normal on this species.  Another popular cliff-nester is the LEAST AUKLET, the smallest alcid in the world.  The views you can get of these tiny guys at Ridge Wall are stunning:
Town Marsh, a very popular spot for shorebirds and birders hoping for shorebirds, was fairly quiet on my last visit.  This SEMIPALMATED PLOVER didn’t seem to mind me stomping around though:
Another abundant shorebird at Town Marsh is the RED-NECKED PHALAROPE.  Of all the shorebirds in the world, I'd argue that phalaropes are the most comfortable swimming on water.  Here’s one in flight however:
I may have mentioned this before but the GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES here fill some interesting niches.  For example, they nest all over town in any kind of cavity they can find.  In fact, and it’s noted quite frequently, these behave like House Sparrows.  They’re abundant, nest all over the place, and they even can sound quite similar to House Sparrows.  Either way, they’re still pretty cool to have around:
The other day we flushed a small, dark warbler-like thing from a roadside up near Novastoshna.  All the glimpses in flight we were getting told us that this was certainly something interesting.  It took probably an hour to track it down for real and once we did, we didn’t find a Dusky Warbler or any Asian vagrant… but a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH instead.  Huh.  Heck of a bird for up here though.  Here’s a terrible picture of it in flight before we knew what it was:
Pumphouse Lake has some of the best shorebird habitat on the island right now.  I was scanning through shorbs the other day when this beasty walked into view:
Antone Slough provided me with one of the neatest subspecies comparison photos I’ve taken.  The front bird is a minima CACKLING GOOSE and the back one is an “Aleutian” CACKLING GOOSE.  Note the difference in overall size, bill size, and forehead angle:
Oh, and yes, the ORIENTAL CUCKOO is still around (it’s been here for almost 2 weeks now).  I managed this shot the other day of the diagnostic buffy undertail coverts:
Although I didn’t connect with it, a nice rarity flew by some other birders yesterday; a PACIFIC SWIFT was seen in the NE corner of the island.  Hopefully I’ll get lucky at some point and snag this rarity, one of my most wanted birds.

I can't complain though, I've been fortunate to have the GRAY WAGTAIL fly by me twice now (and not everyone is so lucky with that).  I also had an EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL pop up off the side of the road yesterday.  Certainly interesting things continue to show up....

12 June 2014


June is continuing to move along and in fact, it's hard to believe that it's nearly half over.  As the summer season continues to approach, many species already have chicks of their own.  It's not uncommon now to see NORTHERN PINTAILS with tiny broods swimming along in various lakes.  Along those lines, I peeked into a ROCK SANDPIPER nest yesterday and found that the chicks had hatched probably within 6 hrs prior (many species of shorebirds are precocial and chicks are capable of leaving the nest within hours of hatching).  Here's the cup o' fluff:
Although they don't breed here, we swung by Antone Slough to study two different races of CACKLING GOOSE that were found earlier in the day.  The one on the left with the white neck collar is B. h. leucopareia ("Aleutian") and the one on the right is B. h. minima ("Cackling").  It was the first time this season that the latter had been seen here:
Although most of the ARCTIC FOXES here are dark in color, there are a couple of white ones around too.  I was venturing along the coast at Marunich the other day when I spotted this fox curled up on a rock taking a snooze.  As I passed by, the fox continued to sleep, oblivious that I was even there.  I eventually cleared my throat and it finally woke up just to glare at me for a few minutes:
The WANDERING TATTLERS are getting harder to come by at this point in the season.  They don't breed on the island so they'll be considered uncommon if they're still around in another week or so.  This one was at Marunich:
Our group was lucky yesterday to relocate the COMMON CUCKOO that Gavin had found the day before.  However, it was raining and the fog was quite thick in the upper cut of the quarry.  Basically, we could tell it was a cuckoo and that was about it:
As one would expect, I continue to visit cliffs often with visitors (this theme will continue for the next 4 months).  A popular bird to target is the RED-FACED CORMORANT.  Here's an adult sporting the red face, two tufts, and a big pale bill:
Almost all the birders on the island were lucky to see an EYEBROWED THRUSH, a rare Asian vagrant, at Polovina Hill the other day.  I say "almost all" because, well, I was the only birder who didn't.  In truth, I was at home in the shower when the phone call came and by the time I made it out to the hill, the bird had just flown out of view.  Long story short, I scoured the hillside for hours that evening and then again the next day but came up empty-handed.  I can only hope that one shows up again during my stay this year.

I'll end with a flower picture.  In my scramble around Polovina Hill looking for the thrush, I stumbled on this flower which I immediately knew was a new one for me out here.  I looked it up after the fact and it's called Weaselsnout.  What's cool is that the plant guide said they're uncommon on the island (we'll see if that's true) and that the best place is on the east side of Polovina Hill (right where I was!):