30 August 2014

An August end

With August already coming to a close, that means I only have 1.5 months left on the Pribilof Islands.  Birding is still going well though and with this season comes an increase in some birds I've been waiting for.

At this point in time, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS are by far the most numerous Code 3 species we see on the island.  Growing up in the Midwest, this species was just as foreign to me as a Nordmann's Greenshank.  However, even though spending time on the "left coast" in the Golden State put me in the path of a couple, coming to St. Paul and experiencing this species in abundance is way better.  At this point, we literally see them daily, often in double-digit numbers.  In fact, later in the season, we'll probably have days of 50+.  Here's a gorgeous juvenile at the Tonki Point wetlands last night:
I ventured to Antone Slough today to check on things; look how much LESS buffy this bird looks compared to the one last night.  But with that bold white eyering, deep rufous cap, and lack of streaking on the middle of the breast, there's still no doubt about the ID:
Another Code 3 shorebird that isn't rare here is the RUFF.  This young bird has been hanging out in Antone Slough for the last two days:
You might remember, we had at least 3 RUFFS visit St. Paul Island earlier this year.  The season isn't over either; it's a very safe bet that there are more to come.

Oh, lest you forget our tattler tussle, here's a bird to try your newfound skills on.  Wandering or Gray-tailed???
So this is a WANDERING TATTLER but it wasn't as obvious and they sometimes are.  This one is trying to show a tiny bit of an eyeline behind the eye but it's clearly not happening like an in-your-face GRAY-TAILED.  Plus, the nasal groove looks longer than 1/2 of the bill to me.

When we arrived on St. Paul Island 3.5 months ago, we were greeted by some TUNDRA SWANS.  Well, those swans decided to stick around which is fine with us; they're quite rare on St. Paul and having some summering rarities seems to be popular with birders.  However, the swans have started changing some of the colorations on their bills which is making it more interesting.  For example, here are two of the "WHISTLING" TUNDRA SWANS, one with more yellow on the bill than the other:
The "BEWICK'S" TUNDRA SWANS are still fairly bold though:
The third Bewick's has a yellow patch that is starting to fade somewhat.  At a distance, it's not as obvious but getting an up-close-and-personal look does the trick:
The fall season is when we check the crab pots a lot more.  Providing shelter for migrants that are stuck here (and looking for trees), the crab pots can be a popular destination for both birds and birders.   How can we forgot the first North American record of Northern Boobook found in the crab pots here?  Or the Asian Brown Flycatcher... or Taiga Flycatcher... or Siberian Accentors... or, well, the list really does go on and on.  Hopefully I'll have some crab pot rarities to report soon!

Although they're not uncommon these days, bumping into some GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS in the pots provided some mild entertainment and a reason to take a photo:
Likewise, I had three WILSON'S WARBLERS feeding together in the crab pots today as well.  Again, this is our most-widespread warbler during the fall season but I don't mind:
Here's yet another view of St. Paul from the hill above town.  The 4th building back, the one with the blue roof, is where us guides call home:
The Russian Orthodox church stands tall in Old Town.  Here you can see the onion dome on top of the cupola (a cupola, which you can see here has windows, is often used for ventilation, to display lights, or use as a look-out):
Lastly, out near the airport/hotel, you can't miss the wind turbines (or, if it's foggy, you CAN).  Here are two of the three pointing west while the FAA radar balls can be seen in the background on top of Lake Hill:
It was a fine evening...

28 August 2014

Today touts "Tatts for tots - two"

Remember earlier when I wanted to illustrate the difference between WANDERING TATTLER and GRAY-TAILED TATTLER but didn't have good enough photos of the GTTA?  Well, an obliging young visitor to the Salt Lagoon the other day remedied that.

Here is a GRAY-TAILED trying to blend in with the omnipresent ROCK SANDPIPERS:
Taking a closer look below, a couple of things should stand out.  First, you can see that the pale supercilium fades slightly but still EXTENDS BEHIND THE EYE:
Look again from farther away:
For comparison, look at this WANDERING TATTLER below.  Any hint of the supercilium behind the eye?
Here are the two species side-by-side.  Look specifically at that supercilium-behind-the-eye mark:
Taking an even closer look at the GRAY-TAILED, the supercilium very nearly meets right over the bill.  It doesn't but it comes much closer than a WANDERING would.  First the GTTA:
And now the WATA for comparison.  Notice how you can see both eyelines coming towards the bill but there is distinct dark separation there:
Another fieldmark is the nasal groove of both species.  I mentioned in an earlier post how the nasal groove of a WANDERING is about 2/3 the length of the bill.  Take a look:
And now compare that to the nasal groove of the GRAY-TAILED:
Boom.  Sure looks like it's about 1/2 the bill length, considerably shorter than a WANDERING.

Anyway, moving on.  The juvenile LESSER SAND-PLOVER is still reliable on Pumphouse Lake (we're on day 10 for this bird):
A swallow was hanging out with the shorebirds on Salt Lagoon the other day (no really, it was hovering over the Rock Sandpiper flock looking like it wanted to land on the shoreline).  It finally found a nearby rock to perch on.  With a scope, we could confirm that it was a SAND MARTIN:
Haven't heard of a Sand Martin before?  It's another name for BANK SWALLOW, in case you were wondering.  Cropping it off-center, making it black-and-white, and boom, it's art:
In closing, here's a view of town you haven't seen before on my blog:

27 August 2014

Code 5 alert!

Now that late-August is upon us, we've been seeing more changes in the weather which has certainly made the birding more interesting.  At first, we had strong winds out of the east which piled in good numbers of American breeders.  For example, the first day of seeing GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS this fall... nearly half a dozen of them showed up at scattered locations all across the island.  Here's a distant picture of the first one I saw at the diesel tanks (found by DG):
That storm brought in other American birds too like 15 ARCTIC TERNS which were seen both at Big Lake and the Salt Lagoon.  I tried to get some documentation pics of the first one I saw... with limited success: 
We also had a couple of shorebirds drop in during the rain including an "American" WHIMBREL; only the 2nd WHIM of the year and the 1st of an American race.  Some other typical migrants showed up too like SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS (which probably could arrive here on any wind).  Here's an adult at Tonki Point Wetlands:
But then the winds shifted, they became strong out of the NW for a day or two which put all us guides on high alert.  Doug was guiding that day and eventually stumbled on a BLUETHROAT which I was able to chase (thanks to their group staying on it for me).  I got some pictures but the bird blends in fairly well; see if you can find it:
That species was very high on my most-wanted list, partly because I'm slowly-but-surely snagging all the ABA breeding species.  This species (and Arctic Warbler) were at the top of the list although neither of them are completely expected here.  Regardless, I was quite pleased with this new lifer and started charging the beard-trimmer for the immediate and celebratory removal of the 4-week old beard.

The day remained quiet until the evening when Doug's group ventured to Hutch Hill where he found a Code 5 WILLOW WARBLER.  Of course, I was in the shower when the news of this rarity came (again).  Rushing out the door, me still being wet, we rushed to the scene and thanks to Doug for keeping tabs on it, managed to relocate it.  Note the small bill, long pale eyeline that meets over the bill, pale feet, lack of a wingbar, fairly bright yellowish wash to breast, relatively long primary projection, etc:
This Old World Phylloscopus warbler has been seen in the ABA area fewer than 20 times (and this particular record represents the 3rd from the Pribs).  In fact, St. Paul Island is the only place this species has been seen away from St. Lawrence Island (also in the Bering Sea).  Code 5 birds are NOT something you come across very often and this bird is only my 7th species with that ranking.

Clearly the winds had brought some new arrivals, some of them very very rare.  This was again confirmed when Doug flushed an interesting bird off the road near Webster House just an hour after the Willow Warbler.  Once relocated, we saw it was a juvenile GRAY-STREAKED FLYCATCHER:
This is another rare vagrant from Siberia, a Code 4 bird.  We all got scope views for several minutes before it eventually vanished.  We walked the celery in that area but didn't see it again.  And with the above picture, before people start babbling incoherent phrases with "Mugimaki" in it, the rich color on the breast is due to the 9 PM light.

So with that closed a fun, rarity-filled day on St. Paul (hopefully the first of many this fall!).  Oh, and in closing, the sunset from town was spectacular too:

23 August 2014

Nasal groovin'

Oy!  So young GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES here are suuuuper tame.  Check out this thing perched behind the Webster House:
Oh, and know how field guides always point to the "nasal grove" fieldmark for tattlers?  Well, I finally saw one close enough where I was sure where the nasal groove actually ended:
If you think the nasal groove is about two-thirds of the bill length, like I do, we'd come to the conclusion that this is a WANDERING TATTLER.  Of course, the calls it gave when it flew away were proof enough to confirm this ID... but still.

21 August 2014


Last evening, I flushed two new island birds (for me, at least); both sparrows and both in the celery patch on the east shore of Antone Lake.  First up, the island's second SAVANNAH SPARROW of the year:
Next, a "SOOTY" FOX SPARROW perched up long enough for me to digiscope it with my phone:
A quick check of the quarry crabpots on my way back yielded the continuing family of COMMON REDPOLLS.  I didn't see one youngster until I was about 4 feet from it.  I stopped dead in my tracks, snapped a few photos, and backed away:

20 August 2014


I told you it wouldn't take long to put together another blog post.  So here's the quickest and dirtiest guide to juv RED-NECKED STINT identification when it's next to a WESTERN SANDPIPER.

Step one... the sandpiper stands taller than the stint; check out the "upper leg" portion of each species:
In the above photo, look also at the primary projection; the stint has noticeable primary projection which gives the entire shape a slightly more tapered look.

When next to the sandpiper, the stint has a slightly more pronounced mantle "V" when looking head-on:
In the next photo, you'll notice this particular stint has a darker head and more blurry, buffy coloring on the breast:
And in the above photo, yeah, just look at the bill length of the RNST compared to the WESA.

Yesterday Scott found a young LESSER SAND-PLOVER at Pumphouse Lake.  This is the 2nd one we've had on St. Paul so far this year (the first was a male that stuck around for 1-2 weeks).  Here's the latest bird:

19 August 2014

I'm alive... even if my blog isn't

Just a warning, this post has more than 20 pictures.  Of course, I haven't updated the blog in so long that this is merely an attempt to catch you up with what's been happening the last two weeks.

Believe it or not, we're already more than halfway done with August and that means we're in the thick of shorebird migration.  We're coming into the part of the year where any of the 4 rare stints is possible (and obviously hoped for).  Speaking of stints, we've had some interesting peeps these days.  First came this particular bird which, rare as it is, is actually a juvenile SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER (after being called a dull Red-necked Stint earlier):
It took some careful studying though and I'd like to thank the other careful observers who helped with the ID.  This was something like the 4th or 5th record of a juvenile SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER ever for St. Paul Island.

Fast forward ten days and what do I find in the Tonki Point Wetlands?  Boom, yet another.  Orrr..... maybe it's the same one and it just returned 1-2 weeks later?  Both do have gape-notches, after all (there is a LEAST SANDPIPER in the background too in case you didn't notice):
If you go to the other side of the bill-length spectrum and want to see a peep with a mega-schnoz, look no further than the WESTERN SANDPIPER (which is a regular fall migrant here): 
From farther away, the long bill is still pretty evident:
Compare the above photo with this photo... see anything different with this bird?
Indeed, the bill is considerably shorter than it should be on a WESA.  This is a juvenile RED-NECKED STINT.  Here's another view showing the long, drawn-out and pointy back end:
Closer yet with my digiscoping setup, the RED-NECKED STINT still distinctly shows decent primary projection and a warmer wash with smudges on the side of the breast:
There are other shorebirds to keep us busy of course.  One such species is the GRAY-TAILED TATTLER which is a very rare bird most places in the US.  This is an adult bird, as you can see with the barring on the underparts, but you'll notice the pure white belly and undertail which is indicative of GRAY-TAILED:
Ooh, here's another tattler with a white belly, it must be a Gray-tailed.... right?  No.  This is a juvenile tattler and juveniles of both Gray-tailed and Wandering have clean white bellies.  You have to look at other field marks such as the shade of the back color, the pale eyeline and if it extends behind the eye, upperside spotting, darkness of gray shading along the sides of the flanks, and, of course, the very different call notes:
We all know that phalaropes are goofy but, around here, you're reminded of that more often than most places.  For example, you spot a bird feeding along the shoulder of a road, even with no water around, and of course it's a RED PHALAROPE acting like a longspur:
Here's another but this time this particular bird managed to at least find some mud to muck through:
There are still plenty of gulls around these days including the normal BLACK-LEGGED and RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKES.  Here's one of the former, a local bird that just hatched this summer; note the very striking pattern (field guides often refer to this pattern of black as a bold "M" shape):
Besides the kittiwakes, the most numerous gull species is the very large GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL.  We have grown accustomed to sifting through numbers of these hoping for any other gull with black wingtips instead of the white and gray.  For example, here's a different gull and the black wingtips helped give it away:
Problem is, it isn't a super straight-forward identification.  See the dark iris?  An American Herring Gull should have a pale iris.  Ok, what about Vega Herring Gull?  Well, the mantle should be noticeably darker on those.  So is this a hybrid between the two?  The head and bill shape don't strike me as Thayer's Gull.  What gives?  Thoughts?

A gull that usually IS straight-forward to ID is the SLATY-BACKED GULL.  Around here, there are no other normally-occurring dark-mantled gulls.  If you spot a giant gull with a black back, even if it's preening and you can't see the head, you're off and running:
Oh, and yes, there ARE still alcids around but things are changing VERY quickly.  For example, LEAST AUKLETS used to be one of the most abundant species on the island.  They couldn't be missed.  Well, now just 3-4 weeks later, we do NOT see them very often, even missing them for days on end.  I'm actually excited by this a little bit because it's a clear sign that changes are coming and fall isn't far away.  A few weeks ago, though, we found this young LEAST AUKLET that was stranded on the side of the road.  We snatched it up and released it somewhere where it hopefully righted itself and survived.  Of course, I also snapped a picture before we let it go:
However, HORNED PUFFINS are still numerous on the cliffs and here's proof that you can still get awesome puffin photos this late into the season:
Switching gears to songbirds, birding HAS gotten more interesting in the past few weeks.  There is a subspecies of PACIFIC WREN that is only found on the Pribilof Islands.  And even though it's only found on 3 islands in the world, it's not a species we see everyday here on St. Paul Island (thankfully they're more numerous on the other two islands).  However, now that the young have hatched and dispersed off of the cliff faces, we've been seeing them scuttling around in the crabpots near town.  I imagine this is good practice for when we're chasing around a Dusky Warbler or accentor here later in the fall.  Anyway, enough banter, here's the wren:
Just in recent days, we've seen an increase in actual migrants from the American side.  For example, several AMERICAN PIPITS have been seen and up to 5 WILSON'S WARBLERS were found lately.  After looking at the local longspurs and rosy-finches for 3 months, you wouldn't believe how refreshing it was to see this familiar, bright yellow warbler pop up out of the wild celery:
Another species showing up is the NORTHERN WHEATEAR.  Before coming here to the Pribilofs, I had only seen wheatear at two other locations (Icy Cape in NW Alaska and in Texas).  However, I've now seen them daily for the past several days which has been enjoyable getting used to!  Like the above photo, it's amazing how refreshing it is to see a flash of white flying along the road in front of you.  Here's one that perched for a few seconds:
Another interesting passerine turned up yesterday.  Five of them, in fact.  My group and I stumbled onto a family group of COMMON REDPOLLS in some of the crabpots on the island.  The young still looked downy in places and others reported seeing the adult feeding one of the youngsters.  Even though us guides saw no evidence of redpolls breeding here this year, they most-likely did in an unchecked part of the island.  Here's one of the youngsters:
Anyway, hopefully that helps in getting folks back up to speed.  I'm sure my next update will come more quickly than this one did.  Peace.