21 October 2015

St. Paul wrap-up

By now and if you're paying enough attention (I don't know who would), you'll see that I added a new Code 5 species to the list here on the blog.  Indeed, after some great discussion between experts all over the world, we were able to confirm that the mystery bunting we had was a PALLAS'S BUNTING!  It is the 7th or 8th ABA record and the first for the Pribilofs.  However, the journey to get to that ID wasn't as straightforward as I thought it might be.

First, if you remember, we were able to narrow it down to Yellow-browed, Pallas's, and Reed Bunting based on that very first photo (the one of the tail pattern).  But after that, we were stuck.  Thankfully, our last encounter provided photos with just enough detail to study it further.  

I admit that I thought it was a Reed Bunting when I first took the photos (in looking back, I got hung up on the photos of the perched bird).  Instead, as Killian Mullarney illustrated with the below photo of our bird in flight, you can see the lesser coverts and that they're quite plainly gray (a mark of PALLAS'S BUNTING)!
Comparatively, all ages of REED BUNTING would have noticeably rufous lesser coverts.  And honestly, if you want this identification boiled down that much, that about settles it between REBU and PALB.

But here's another photo anyway... you can see the gray lesser coverts in this photo as well (with an insert comparing the Gambell PALB:
Last but not least, he shared these photos of buntings in the hand taken by Mats Waern; Pallas's on the left, Common Reed on the right:
Pretty cool comparison, right?

Another point of evidence in favor of PALLAS'S BUNTING was the call note.  I took a movie with my phone of the bird flushing and after further review, I found I had captured something at the tail end of one of my videos!  I stripped the audio from the movie and Magnus Robb made sonograms of the call note and compared it with other known PALBs.  Take a look; here's the call note from our bird on top with examples of other PALBs below:
Perfect match!  Especially when compared to the sonogram of Reed Bunting that didn't match that at all.

So after it was all said and done, I owe a big shout out to those guys who helped in the identification of this rarity (namely Killian Mullarney, Lars Svensson, Nial Moores, Paul Holt, Paul Leader, and Magnus Robb).

But now that the dust (mist?) has settled from our 5 month guiding season on St. Paul, here's a wrap-up summarizing some things.  I did the same kind of summary after last season but this year I have the added benefit of being able to point to last season's numbers as well!

I ended my time on St. Paul with 162 species this season which is 1 more than my total from last year!  However, there was a different variety this year and I managed to add 36 new birds to my island list bringing it to just a few shy of 200.

I ended with 7 new ABA birds and although that was lower than what I expected, I can't complain about the quality at all!  Plus, and this is key, I was very fortunate to find every single one of those lifers myself.

Here's a list of the Code 3-5 rarities we had:

Code 3 (n = 23, +1 compared to 2014)
Code 4 (n = 10, -4 compared to 2014)
Code 5 (n = 4, +1 compared to 2014)
* = ABA lifer

Tundra Bean-Goose
Tufted Duck
Steller's Eider
European Golden-Plover *
Lesser Sand-Plover
Common Sandpiper
Gray-tailed Tattler
Common Greenshank *
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Long-toed Stint
Red-necked Stint
Little Stint *
Jack Snipe
Common Snipe
Black-headed Gull
Ross's Gull
Slaty-backed Gull
Common Cuckoo
White-throated Neetletail *
Eurasian Hobby
Brown Shrike
Sky Lark
Willow Warbler
Siberian Rubythroat
Red-flanked Bluetail
Eyebrowed Thrush *
Dusky Thrush
Siberian Accentor
Olive-backed Pipit
Red-throated Pipit
Little Bunting
Rustic Bunting
Pallas's Bunting *
Pallas's Rosefinch *

As it was last year, it's quite a haul and I challenge any Lower 48 state to come up with a comparable list for any 5 month period.  Even California.... although California is 3898x bigger than St. Paul Island.  :-)

I should also add that in that list of Code 5 species is a species that had never been seen in the ABA area before!  It was a special treat to be a part of that encounter.

Numbers aside, I really do feel quite lucky to have had that opportunity.  I want to thank those of you who made it happen, made it more fun than it might have been, and put up with me and these blog posts.

19 October 2015

The final adrenaline

Looking back just now, I'm embarrassed that it has been 9 or 10 days since my last post!  This is certainly due to a couple of things... a) we had BIRDS to find! and b) we were busy packing up to leave the island.  That's right, I'm no longer sitting in St. Paul with the Bering Sea mist raining down on my window.  Nope, I'm in Missouri awaiting the next phase (more on that later, I assume).

However, the last week or two on St. Paul certainly were exciting for Ashley and me.  I'm not sure where to begin so I'll just run things down in order.

I suppose a good starting place is this picture:
This bad boy is a CANVASBACK, an excellent find by Scott.  Although he found it on Webster Lake, Ash and I were lucky to relocate the bird on Weather Bureau Lake later in the day.  This was a new island bird for Scott as well as both of us.  Quite rare in the Pribs, this was only the ~7th record.  This bird REALLY reminded me of the COMMON POCHARD that showed up on Weather Bureau Lake on October 11 of last year; similar species, similar timing, same location.

Ok, I lied... I think a better place to begin the recent madness is actually with this photo:
It was October 11, the last day we had clients.  In fact, Susan and I were driving the SW Road in the morning just to see if we could find anything in the last couple of hours before the flight.... and then... the bird.

We flushed a bird off the road just west of the Blubber Dump... and it was interesting.  After spending month after month driving these same roads looking at the same suspects, it's certainly obvious when you have something rare on your hands.  This little brown bird certainly behaved like a "rare".  It ducked in the roadside veg and refused to come out (that's your first warning).  When it flushed, it was SMALL and had very obvious white outer edges to the tail (something smaller than a LALO with white in the tail?  Warning #2).  We crept up and when it flushed, I somehow managed to get the above picture of the bird.  The problem is, we couldn't find it again and that photo was the only proof we had!  At first I suspected something like Little Bunting but, as Ashley pointed out at home in photos online, Little Bunting doesn't have white on two outer tail feathers like our bird... but buntings like Reed, Pallas's, and Yellow-browed did! 

CRRAAP.  The bird haunted me.  I emailed the photo around, studied stuff online... but in the end it wasn't quite good enough of a photo to pull the trigger on which species.  The illustrations in the Rare Birds book didn't match some examples we found online and that meant a lot of conflicting sources and, basically, we were screwed with narrowing down the ID.  It really did haunt me too.  We tried to find the bird again later... no bird.  Did I mention how it haunted me?  I HAD a lifer... and knew it was a GOOD bird, a Code 4 or 5... but it slipped away and I didn't know what kind it was.  It's a horrible feeling.  -sigh-  Guess we had to move on.

The rest of the day wasn't shabby though.  For example, here's a JACK SNIPE at Antone Slough that Scott had found (this was presumably a different bird from the Pumphouse Lake bird which was still present):
And if you want proof that the bird was on St. Paul... here's a photo of it with our well-known white vans:
We also found a GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET in the main crab pots which, lucky for Scott, hung around long enough for him to come and see it:
The next day, Monday, wasn't bad either.  It started out at Hutch Cut with some beautiful fall light at our backs.  Here's a SNOW BUNTING, an abundant species this time of year:
The GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES didn't look too shabby in the nice light either:
Later that evening, Ashley and I struck gold again.  We were covering Zapadni Ravine when we flushed a tiny brown bird with white in the tail!  We panicked.  Could this be that mystery bird from the previous day?!  Bins up... then camera.  What it captured surprised us... it was a LITTLE BUNTING:
The picture isn't anything great but hell, that's a Code 4 vagrant and a lifer for Ashley!  It was then that we realized it had company... another little brown bunting!  Here's a horrible photo showing both birds (if you feel like playing "Where's Waldo?"):
Damn, the second bird was "just" a LITTLE BUNTING as well!  We made the call to Scott and he and Alison came out and snagged the birds, new ABA birds for both of them.  This is a great species to see in the Pribs too; this record was only the 3rd from the island all-time.  However... we knew that even though we found two rare buntings that evening... they weren't the suspicious bird that got away earlier.  Still, it was an amazingly rewarding day for birding long and hard and finding good birds by doing so.

The next day, the 13th, the birding became even more mental (believe it, folks, it was October in the Pribs!).  It started out at SW Road again where Ashley and I checked on the Little Buntings..., yep, still there.  This time I managed a better photo too:
After that, we were heading towards SW Point when we passed the Blubber Dump... and then lightning struck... at the EXACT SAME SPOT AS BEFORE.  I slammed on the brakes; there, flying right in front of us, was a tiny brown bunting with a lot of white in the tail!  This was the exact same spot that the mystery bunting got away from me 3 days prior.  This time, I meant business.  This time, Ashley and I saw where the bird dropped.  Cameras out... stealth mode... we were about to rare all over the island with this bird... we could feel it.  The bird flushed... cameras clicked, cell-phone cameras rolled movie.  NOTHING.  Ok, frustrating, but we saw where it dropped.  We tried again... and this time, we GOT it.  Well, what we got was a blob in the photos that was NOT helpful and certainly not identifiable.  We thought we knew where it dropped... but it wasn't there.  We zig-zagged all around trying desperately to find the bird again... but failed.  I was frantic... and sick to my stomach; it had happened again.  That rare lifer got away.

Ashley went back to the van to grab a different phone (one with the right app) so that we could try playback as a last resort.  Meanwhile, I had slumped to my knees on the tundra.  Exhausted and really quite cold (my gloves had been strewed back along the side of the road earlier by their frantic owner), I didn't know what to try next.  Then I raised my head... I had heard something that didn't fit in.  I heard it again.  I stood up and tried to find it... it called once more to my left.  I snapped my head around just in time to see the mystery bunting leap from its perch and fly up, up, and away towards the road.  I couldn't believe it, we had refound it!  This time, thankfully, we started to make progress with it.  The next time it flushed, I managed some sharp photos of the back of the bird:
Notice the white on two tail feathers on each side?  Whatever it was... we knew it wasn't Little!  Here's another photo from the same sequence:
The bird kept flying and getting farther away but I managed another torpedo-shot:
We dropped our cameras and watched the bird fly... and then our luck REALLY improved.  The blasted bird perched UP instead of diving into cover!  Albeit, it was probably a quarter mile away but we saw it from a distance and snapped a bunch of photos, hoping that one of them might be sharp enough.  It's not sharp but take a look at what I got:
Yep, the photo clearly shows it's either a REED BUNTING (Code 4) or a PALLAS'S BUNTING (Code 5)!  From the back of the camera, I was looking at the photos and saw this one:
It looked to have a pale median crown stripe (apparently a good fieldmark for Reed Bunting).  Also, I looked at the flight shots and because I expected a PALLAS'S BUNTING to be much paler in the rump, I was really leaning towards REED BUNTING for this bird.  But the most important thing was that we realized it wasn't something less exciting like another Rustic or Little Bunting.  Once we had that confirmation, we called Scott and Alison and they zoomed out.

The four of us swept up towards where we thought the bunting had dropped... but didn't flush it!  Uh oh!  Thankfully, Scott was looking to my left and he saw the bird pop up and back down!  We crept up and again, flushed the bird.  We all heard it call (which could be really helpful down the road) but we lost the bird (but not before we watched it gain altitude and fly way out over the water!).  Don't worry, we saw it come back to land... we just didn't know where it had landed.  

Anyway, I assumed my photos were going to be good enough to clinch the ID between Reed and Pallas's and so instead of rushing back home to work on photos, Ashley and I continued birding.  THAT was the right move.

Not even a mile down the road... Ashley pointed out an interesting brown bird in flight pretty high over the tundra to our left (near the SW lava flow).  We then watched it plummet into the grass.  "Here we go again" I muttered as we got out of the van, checked the settings on our cameras, and set off to hopefully relocate the bird.  The first flush, it got up, I got pictures, and the bird went back towards the shoulder of the road.  But first, I looked at my photos... what did I capture?
Well, that big orange eyebrow told me one thing... we had just found a Code 4 vagrant called a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR!  Another lifer for Ashley (and only my second ever), we were thrilled.  The bird had landed on the shoulder of the road where I snapped a quick picture of it:
Once again, I called Scott and Alison.  However, I couldn't reach them (they had gone NE where cell coverage is spotty).  Thankfully, a minute or two later, they called back... but I couldn't hear what they were saying; I assumed they were telling me that they were returning for the accentor.

I was wrong.

I got a text a minute later from Scott... they had found a BROWN SHRIKE (Code 4) near the Webster Gate.  And then the chase was on.  They were rushing SW to see the accentor, we were rushing NE to see the shrike.  Before long, our two white vans sped past each other.  We arrived on the scene but at first couldn't find the shrike.  However, this SNOW GOOSE was a very random surprise (it was a new island year bird for me, actually):
However, our main target, the shrike, was being a pain.  I saw the bird poorly as it flew from an area near the house up and over the Webster Seawatch dunes.  We rushed there but I only saw it a second more as it was swooping along the dunes heading northeast... and that was the last any of us ever saw the shrike.

We headed back towards SW Point to continue birding where we had left off.  While there, we swung up to the cliffs near the gate where Scott and Alison had found a SONG SPARROW.  Lucky for me, it was still in the same place.  The picture isn't great but it captures proof of this new island bird for me: 
But we were rolling with Code 4 species that day (Little Bunting, Reed/Pallas's Bunting, Siberian Accentor, Brown Shrike).  It'd be a shame not to check on our little Code 4 friend, the JACK SNIPE to snag another.  The Pumphouse bird was still there:
But all in all, what a day.  Ashley had snagged a couple of lifers and I was lucky to get one as well (assuming we could figure out the Reed/Pallas's thing).  However, the following day was relatively quiet in terms of rarities (we're becoming quite jaded... we had a beautiful GYRFALCON kiting directly overhead).  In fact, we saw the Gyr making several passes at catching a NORTHERN SHRIKE!  I can safely say that I hadn't seen that before.

Also, Scott and Alison had found a new NORTHERN SHRIKE at the quarry crab pots.  We swung through basically so that we could say we saw two shrikes that day:
By this point, we were down to our last day of birding on the island.  We never did see the mystery bunting again but not for lack of trying.  Instead, this SONG SPARROW found us while we were parked at the Ridge Wall parking area (and had some serious plans for us):
And boy, was it interested.  It landed on the van... then the mirror.. then the side of the door... then the hood... then back to the mirror.  It continued hopping all over the car for the next half hour.  I rolled the window down and sure enough, it came INSIDE the car.  It came down to the driver's seat, the dashboard, back out to the mirrors, etc.  Daft bird.
Believe it or not, I think the long-staying JACK SNIPE actually had left Pumphouse Lake the previous night.  We had clear skies, light wind out of the NE... it was perfect migration weather.  We walked its favorite patch but no bird.  In its absence, I took a picture of the gull flock instead.  Note the not-rare-at-all SLATY-BACKED GULL in the foreground:
Speaking of SBGUs, here's another from SW Point taking a yawn:
It was exceptionally calm though.  So much so that some passerines came out of the woodwork (does that phrase work if there's no wood for these birds in the first place??).  For example, Ash and I stumbled on these (flagged in eBird) YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS along Big Lake:
This red FOX SPARROW was also a sharp-looking visitor to the Webster House area:
In the end, it was a beautiful last day or two.
I'm sure I'll throw together a little summary post from the last 5 months (and maybe I'll discuss the mystery bunting some more!) but with that, my posts from St. Paul Island have come to a close.

09 October 2015

A shocking Bering Sea first!

The past two days have been way more interesting than I thought they were going to be!  True, the Eurasian Hobby was never relocated (bummer for a few of us), but other than that, things got goofy.

It started yesterday when Susan, Ashley, and I were driving northeast through Novastoshna.  Although we drive the roads here on St. Paul every day, it's not that often we see something that obviously doesn't belong.  However, that's what happened when we caught sight of a tiny greenish bird that had bumped off the road.  After pointing and proclaiming "good bird", we stopped the van and hopped out.  Thankfully, the bird flew across the road in front of us and landed on a dune ridge.  Then we heard it.  It sounded like a kinglet... but not the Ruby-crowned kind!  It took several minutes to find the culprit but we eventually succeeded in unearthing a very secretive GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET:
It's a quality find out here, actually.  This was the 7th record ever for the Pribilofs and the first since 2011.

As it so happened, we weren't done with kinglets for the day... we found this RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET in the main crab pots a few hours later:
Always a nice thing to see, we stopped and watched this very white SNOWY OWL that was perched on a hump near the Coast Guard Station:
Little did I know that the next day was going to have even more surprises!  Ashley and I decided to drive roads in the wind and rain this morning and it paid off with this VARIED THRUSH near the Zapadni area:
This was the 12th Pribilof record (and a new island bird for us).

However, the biggest surprise was DEFINITELY this next vagrant.  Ashley and I were driving alongside Webster House this morning when she mentioned something about a woodpecker.  It took a second to sink in but when I saw what she was pointing to, I stopped the van, put my bins up, and instantly dropped them and reached for my camera instead.  Clinging to a post behind the house was a little dracula-looking thing:
We could NOT believe our eyes, it was a freaking BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER!  After we snapped some pictures, it randomly flew off (it was being buffeted by a 30 mph north wind):
It flew out of view towards the Webster Celery patch:
And just like that, we had one of the biggest surprises of the entire season.  This was not only the first record for the Pribilofs, but also the first ever for the Being Sea region.  Take a look at what the all-time records look like in eBird:
When this recent sighting gets displayed, it will be the westernmost record in the world of this largely non-migratory species.

Even without vagrants, I must say I'm a huge fan of the fall evenings here on St. Paul Island.  Here's the upper cut of the quarry (where the Pallas's Rosefinch was found earlier this fall):
... and here's a panoramic view of Lake Hill, an extinct volcano with a lake in the crater:
From a different angle, and in evening light, the crater glows (but not in a scary way):
Anyway, with these recent surprises, who knows what will show up next!  American Dipper?

07 October 2015

Need a hobby?

Four of the seven birders on the island were lucky to have a EURASIAN HOBBY fly by earlier today.  This Code 4 vagrant (the 4th Pribilof record) is our latest by almost 2 months and the first one here in 12 years.  As (bad) luck would have it, Ashley and I were birding on the opposite end of the island and ended up missing the bird.  Who knows, maybe it'll stick around?

In our subsequent searching for the hobby, we came across this NORTHERN SHRIKE near the airport:
This is the 6th Pribilof record and the first since 2013.

I have to say, the fall evenings here are still splendid!

04 October 2015

Bramblin' Man

The past few days have seen a marked increase of BRAMBLINGS on the island.  With daily counts reaching upwards of 13 birds, these Code 3 finches are quickly becoming commonplace.  Here's one on the north side of Hutch Hill:
Before you think that's mind-blowing, remember that our daily counts of BRAM last fall topped 40 birds!  In terms of Asian vagrant passerines, Brambling is indeed the lowest-hanging fruit.

Compared to last fall, SKY LARKS are more reliable on the island this time around.  We've seen as many as 3 in a day and at least 1 has been seen almost every day for the last week.  Here's one near Hutch Hill that was actually giving little song snippets between the usual flight calls (it's a blurry photo but I managed to catch the bill open):
However, the main highlight yesterday was the discovery of a new Code 3 species for the season.  Tom and Doug found a RUSTIC BUNTING on the slope downhill from the upper cut of Polovina Hill.  All groups coalesced, ascended, and then descended to the spot.  It took a couple of sweeps before we were able to flush this secretive Old World emberizid but once it did, most of us got quite decent looks:
Who doesn't love a vagrant with a semi-crest?
But of course, we wouldn't stop there... we found yet another RUSTIC BUNTING on the top of Hutch Hill later in the day!  This is the first time we've had multiple RUBUs around since 2011.

Another highlight from yesterday was an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT (Code 3) in the Barabaras Celery patch.  However, in typical fashion, the bird remained very skulky and I couldn't manage any IDable shots.  But hey, it's an awesome species and any day with an OBPI is a good day.

So what was the rarest Pribilof sighting yesterday?  It wasn't the pipit... or buntings.  Nope, it was this NORTHERN HARRIER!
We were lucky to see this bird meander overhead while we were at Polovina Hill doing the whole RUBU chase thing.  Although this is a familiar species for most of us, this is only the 7th record for the Pribilofs which makes it the rarest bird sighting yesterday (relative to here, of course).

Technically speaking, we leave next week.  Yikes.  Better get out there and walk some lava fields before it's too late!