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!

25 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.

15 July 2015

Xbill marks the spot

I’m not sure by what mechanism one falls behind in blogging by almost 2 weeks especially given the fact that the person wishes they could update you all every couple of days.   Here we are though, July 15, more than 2 months from when we arrived in May.  

In terms of rarities, this time of year is traditionally a bit of a lull.  That’s not to say good birds haven’t happened… it’s just that they don’t very often.  It’s ok though, it’s not all about rarities (or is it?); many of our clients lately have been interested in things like Northern Fur Seals or photographing the splendid array of seabirds St. Paul Island hosts on its cliffs.

And the seabirds are themselves splendid as well.  The TUFTED PUFFINS continue to put on a great show, especially at the well-known Reef seabird cliff:
Chicks litter the landscape these days and it’s become commonplace to nonchalantly swerve around broods of Semipalmated Plovers and Rock Sandpipers on the roads.  So many Rock Sandpipers have fledged their chicks that the Salt Lagoon is getting busier and busier with the growing number of birds.  Still, it’s not uncommon to see a ROCK SANDPIPER, such as this one, on random bits of roadside tundra:
 
The SNOW BUNTINGS are equally as busy with feeding duties and it’s not rare to see newly-fledged chicks bopping along the roadsides.  Here’s a male that’s in the process of delivering some food to its chicks on Hutch Hill:
 
Still though, signs of fall migration are all around if you know where to look.  For example, the numbers of migrant shorebirds continue to grow.  A recent visit to Marunich (North Beach) yielded about 300 Ruddy Turnstones which is a big turn-around from several weeks ago when there were 0.  We’ve also seen growing numbers of WESTERN SANDPIPERS (now up to 3), PECTORAL SANDPIPERS (also up to 3), and we were even treated to this less-than-annual BAIRD’S SANDPIPER in the quickly-drying Pumphouse Lake:
 
We’re getting that fall vibe from birds other than shorebirds as well.  For instance, we’ve been seeing quite a few more jaegers in recent days compared to the not-so-distant past.  In fact, I’ve managed to see all three jaegers species in the last 48 hours.  Here’s a LONG-TAILED JAEGER that was simply sitting on the road near Big Lake one day:
 
In terms of uncommon sightings though, perhaps the most interesting thing going on is the crossbill invasion (and whether I should use “invasion” is up to debate).  Unlike most years here in the Pribs, we actually do have crossbills around the island.  It’s true, we don’t have trees/cones here so one must wonder how happy these birds must be.  Despite their presumed annoyance, it’s been a good time having them show up around the island from time to time.  My first was of a wet WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL on the road leading to Marunich:
 
Turns out they’re not too shy.  This bird even approached me several times! 

A few days later, a hefty flock of 13 was found hanging around Reef (keep in mind that the previous high count for this species was 1).  And last but not least, we had 2 WWCRs on the Low Cliffs yesterday including this ludicrously tame individual:
 

The hike up to the Low Cliffs (these come before the High Cliffs) was a spectacular scene yesterday with the calm conditions and attractive array of wildflowers.  I’ll leave you with a panorama of the area:

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: