29 September 2015


When the rosefinch was found more than a week ago, you can imagine the scramble all of the birders undertook to get onsite ASAP.  As you can see below, you know something worthwhile is afoot when all of our vehicles are at one place (other than where we live):
And understandably, we've been birding the quarry every single day since the Pallas's Rosefinch was found.  However, the bird has remained very elusive along the hard-to-reach ridge top and very few people have actually succeeded in relocating the bird.  As far as I know, it was last seen on the 24th and only in flight.

However, the "Patagonia Roadside Rest" effect went into action when Alison and her group found a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL (Code 4) while searching for the rosefinch!  However, the bird was a one-and-done wonder and no one was ever able to relocate it.

Despite those birds being less than reliable, we've had some other fun birds around like this ARCTIC WARBLER in Zap Ravine for a couple of days, the first one of the season.  As is typical for this species in migration here, it was quite skulky and rarely came out in the open.  This is the best I could do:
We continue to have large numbers of redpolls on the island.  We've seen a flock of 100+ birds once or twice which is the largest I had ever seen here.  And believe it or not, not all of the redpolls on the island have found their way to that flock yet; here's one in the quarry crab pots:
Present on the island since we arrived in mid-May, our resident BARROW'S GOLDENEYE continues on Weather Bureau Lake:
In shorebird news, it's stunning to scope the Salt Lagoon and NOT see Rock Sandpipers!  Sure, there are a few stragglers remaining but the vast majority have departed their breeding grounds and have migrated south to the Aleutians.  They are such a staple here during most of the season that it seems strangely quiet and stark without them.

Also, we now have TWO different JACK SNIPE on the island; another one was found at Tonki Point Wetlands just yesterday.

Speaking of snipe, sometimes you have a bird that you miss once or twice... and then it's three and four times.  Before you know it, it becomes a nemesis.  That's what COMMON SNIPE was to Ashley.  Was.  We were finally able to connect with the continuing bird from Pumphouse Lake:
Thankfully, the fun didn't stop with the COSN.  Scott had found a Code 3 OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT on Hutch Hill and so nearly all the birders on the island converged there later that evening.  Although it was quite uncooperative, as this species of pipit can be, we all were successful in seeing the bird flush several times.  An easier photographic subject was the beautiful fall evening with the bright sunlight contrasting with the incoming squalls:
To top things off, we called it a night after relocating a SNOWY OWL that was found near the Coast Guard Station.  Although regular here in spring and fall (and sometimes summer), does anyone actually get sick of these ghostly sentinels of the north?
The guiding season on St. Paul is winding down (only 18 days left on island) but we hope we have a few rarities tucked into this traditionally exciting time.  Stay tuned...

25 September 2015

An ABA first

Back on Sunday, I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. Some visiting birders and I were walking slowly down the upper cut of the quarry (which gets checked on a daily basis) when I heard a call note I didn't recognize. I looked up and saw a small, reddish passerine flying over. Knowing full well that any reddish bird doesn't belong in this part of the world, I pointed up and probably hollered some nonsensical jibberish about "red bird" and "get photos". The bird, which was giving a high-pitched "tseee" call note, thankfully landed high up on the ridge to our right and I managed a couple of very distant photos like this one:
It was obvious that this rare bird was a finch and possibly a Common Rosefinch, a Code 4 vagrant to North America from East Asia and the Russian Far East. However, it was difficult to make out much at that distance especially considering the bird was fairly fidgety. Although it continued to give its high-pitched and sparrow-like "tseee" call note, it took to the air and flew left. Here's a photo of it mid-flight in front of a rock:
It landed on another rock near the top of the ridge but was rather backlit:
I called Doug, who was guiding the other group of birders on the island, and told him about the bird. They stopped what they were doing and started towards the quarry immediately. I also called Scott and let him know about the possible rosefinch and he relayed the message to Alison, who also started towards the quarry.

While I waited for the other people to arrive, I opened up several of the apps on my phone to see what the call notes of Common Rosefinch sounded like... but none of them fit, they sounded more like House Finch. Although I remained curious, I didn't necessarily think much of it, I just figured the app didn't have them all.

When Doug arrived, we looked at my photos via the screen on the camera but couldn't make out much. However, it was obvious it was a bird we wanted our clients to see (and we wanted to see better as well). After all, if it was a Common Rosefinch, it would be a lifer for most of the birders on the island. So we spread out and several climbed the steep ridge. Next thing I knew, the ridge-top walkers yelled that they had the bird so all of us quickly clambered up. Several of them had managed to see and photograph the bird and it wasn't long before Doug came over to show me his photos. We saw the bird had prominent streaking on the back and bold wingbars...

It was then that we pulled it back from "Common Rosefinch" to "not sure, maybe Pallas's Rosefinch". Doug spread the news and before long people excitedly started asking, "Has there ever been one of those here?" The answer was, "No, this would be a first ever ABA record". For reference, here's the range map of Pallas's Rosefinch from the Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil:
Thankfully the bird surfaced again and flew in a wide circle around everyone before dipping down over the ridge lip. As before, the bird called several times, the same high-pitched "tseee" note. We scrambled around for quite a while but failed to relocate the bird. We eventually called it quits and retreated for the day, some of us thinking it was a Pallas's, some of us thinking it was a Common.

That afternoon I continued to study the vocalizations of the two species and the fact that this bird gave only one type of call note, gave it repeatedly, and that it matched Pallas's Rosefinch spot on... well, it really had me convinced. We also studied photos that night to see how much variation rosefinches can show and whether this bird was much of a match. We emailed several photos to other experts around the world and when the replies started coming in, it confirmed what we were thinking... this was indeed the first Pallas's Rosefinch for North America and even the Western Hemisphere!

The following day had a lot riding on it. A group of birders returned to the quarry to see if they could relocate the bird, get more photos, and maybe get recordings of its call note. The news came back... they HAD relocated the bird, they HAD managed even better photos, and they HAD managed to record the bird. Their checklist has amazing photos and a link to the recording of this bird (click here).

The news of this first ABA record spread quickly due to social media. Here's a snippet (and photo from Neil) that went up on the ABA blog shortly after (click here).

Of course, being a new species for Alaska, this record will be evaluated by the Alaska Checklist Committee. If they accept it, it will then be reviewed by the ABA checklist committee. If accepted, it would be a Code 5 species (which I went ahead it and labeled it as on the rarity list on this blog).

Most kids have a long list of dreams. For me, growing up a birder here in the US, it revolved around finding a first ABA record. Little did I know that in the fall of 2015, it would actually happen.

19 September 2015

Jack of spades

We've been having some dominating northwest winds lately and finally those winds have brought us a crowd-pleasing rarity.  Doug and I found this JACK SNIPE in Pumphouse Lake the other day:
Perhaps the funniest thing was that we found this bird mid-conversation in which we were discussing how the habitat on Pumphouse Lake looks fine for JASN!  In typical Jack Snipe fashion, it flushed close, stayed low, and dropped down into some habitat a short distance away.  After convening all the birders on the island and lining everyone up appropriately, it was time to flush the bird in front of everyone.  It worked splendidly; we watched it flush, fly around everyone, and land a short distance away.  A few people let out a hearty cheer (which actually flushed the bird again).  

This Code 4 species was the 9th record for St. Paul Island (keep in mind that we had 3-4 individuals just last fall!).  Actually, the Pribs and Jack Snipe go way back; the first ever record for North America was a specimen here in 1919 and it remains that there is no better place in the ABA area than St. Paul Island to hope for this elusive and tiny snipe.

Earlier that day, Doug and Alison ventured to less-birded places and found some quality things like OVENBIRD (a phenomenal first record for Pribilofs) and a SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT (our first of the fall).  Later in the day, Doug found this Code 3 SKY LARK that eventually allowed great views for all the birders on the island:
You might remember the MEW GULL we had around for a while?  Well, I saw it again and picked it up from the edge of Antone Lake... dead.  Here's a picture of the tail pattern I was so interested in:
So by looking at that tail pattern, I suppose it's safe to call it a "Kamchatka" MEGU now, post-mortem?  I'm not sure exactly what happened to the bird but, like with most birds, the first year of life is often the harshest.  RIP, Mewey.

Although these two birds aren't lining up as perfectly as I could have wanted, I'm still happy to have this comparison shot of RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (left) and RED PHALAROPE (right):
Notice the daintier build and thinner bill of the RNPH.  At this point in the season though, RNPHs become much less common and downright rare whereas the REPHs move in by the hundreds.  In fact, I'm sure you'll see more photos of phalaropes on this blog in the coming days.

One of the staple passerines here on the island is the PACIFIC WREN.  And yes, they're doing fine; here's one that perched up nicely:
I'll end with a couple of non-bird photos.  The weather has changed lately into fall-mode which means slightly more blue skies, more frequent squalls, and chillier temps.  Here's a view of Gorbatch Bay:
And this stunner from Reef Point shortly after sunrise:
I can't complain, the sunsets aren't bad either:
Stay tuned, hopefully we'll turn up some more goodies soon. 

17 September 2015

T minus 1 month

Ashley and I will be boarding a plane and leaving St. Paul Island one month from today.  Will we ever see the island again?  Well, who knows.

However, before that happens, we have one last month to scour for rarities here in the middle of the Bering Sea.  While Gambell is killing it lately (multiple SIAC, OBPI, PEPI, BRSH, etc), we're still in wait mode; we've had quite a nice stretch of westerly winds... now we wait to see what will find its way to the island and get found.

In the meantime, let's start this post with the crab pots.  The stacks of these near town act as a "forest" for lost birds; on a windy and rainy day, birds can find both shelter and a dry area to look for food.  Lately, the pot-skulkers have had a distinctly familiar American taste:
Not that there is anything wrong with DARK-EYED JUNCOS, FOX SPARROWS, GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS, GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSHES, and RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS (1 was found today), we'd just much rather the pots be filled with Siberian Accentors, Asian Brown Flycatchers, and Yellow-browed Warblers!

Although, there was one crab pot bird that surprised me:
Yep, that's a BALD EAGLE perching on the pots, something I had never seen before.  It's a horrible picture, yes, but about par for shooting through the windshield shortly after dawn.

Speaking of horrible photos (a specialty of Cory), would you know this if it flew over?
It's an EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL that we had fly over Town Marsh the other day.  Actually, it's getting late for this species (4th latest ever for Pribs).

This next species is a bit easier to recognize... especially when it's not a blurry flight photo.  It's a COMMON REDPOLL from the quarry:
A client and I wandered along the beach at Marunich (North Point) to target tattlers the other day and, shocker, it actually worked.  There were ~5 WANDERING TATTLERS including this juvenile that caused me to look twice:
Shortly thereafter this obvious GRAY-TAILED TATTLER popped into view.  Comparing it with the WATA above, it shows how tricky the ID can be sometimes.
The ID marks are subtle but look for a slightly stronger pale supercilium behind the eye, more flecking on the tertials and coverts, eyebrows that nearly meet over the bill, and a nasal groove that doesn't exceed half the length of the bill.

Also at Marunich, we flushed this snipe out of the pond (which now has water again!):
The pictures are, of course, horrible but still good enough to show a distinctive white panel in the underwings clinching it as COMMON SNIPE.  Here's a slightly better view:
However, remember that COSN are actually more expected here than WISN.  Still, I was happy to catch up with this year bird.

Probably at least 95% of the big gulls we see here are GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS.  However, that leaves 5% of potential goodies.  Maybe 3rd down the list of most expected is the SLATY-BACKED GULL.  We found this classic adult in the lava fields at SW Point:
Besides being obviously dark mantled, notice the broad white tertial skirt, pale eye, dark smudging around the eye, streaked head, and a smaller/stouter bill.  And yes, it really is slaty-backed:
The "string of pearls" so often mentioned for this species are a little ragged on this bird due to it being in molt.  Anyway, this was the 10th day I'd had SBGU this year with 9 of those coming in August and September.

Stay tuned... in the meantime feel free to drop me a line at arcticory@gmail.com.  

14 September 2015

Victims of the in-house fly-by

As I type this, we're having a bit of a wind event.  Ok, more like "it's actually windy now".  For the last 24 hours we've had SW/W winds at 40 mph with gusts today hitting 60 mph.  This, together with a substantial amount of rain, made for some sad shorebirds (they'd sit hunkered down alongside puddles and such).  For example, you know you're in a storm when you're seeing RED PHALAROPES in the middle of the road next to puddles:
(Speaking of Red Phalaropes, though, it still cracks me up to see these out-of-control flyers zooming through town, riding on gusts of wind.  I saw one today almost careen right into our living room window but thankfully we remained victimless of its fly-by.)

It has been apparent of late that we had a new bunch of redpolls reach St. Paul Island after the last batch of north winds.  In a matter of 1-2 days, several of us were seeing HOARY REDPOLLS (which had not been happening lately).  Ashley and I bumped into this beauty in the lake bowl of Lake Hill:
As is typical for St. Paul Island at this time of year, we have several species of migrant sparrows lurking about.  For starters, here is a comparison photo showing GOLDEN-CROWNED on the left and WHITE-CROWNED on the right:
Another expected fall species is the SAVANNAH SPARROW; usually these are seen every day (barring hurricane-like conditions).  Here's one perched in a celery patch:
For several days the celery patch at Antone Slough was *the* place to be.  We've had recent sightings of Yellow and Orange-crowned warblers, up to 8 Savannah Sparrows, several Pacific Wrens, White-winged Crossbill, Fox Sparrow, etc.  In fact, here is a picture of the latter there in that patch:
However, it seemed to me while guiding yesterday that many of these passerines up and jumped ship the previous night.  Birding was generally slow... but we were happy to have this calling RED-THROATED PIPIT, my first of the fall, fly over Pumphouse Lake:
Checking eBird, it shows that I had this Code 3 species 4x last fall and all between 7-21 September.

Ooh, guess what... we still have some stunner puffins around!  Yep, I visited some seabird cliffs yesterday for the first time in quite a while.  It was good to be face-to-face with my clown-like summer friends yet again.  Here's a digiscoped picture I took with my phone through my scope:
There was no shortage of HORNED PUFFINS either.  Here's one doing a fly-by:
Well, it remains to be seen if this current batch of strong west wind will deliver any oddities to our shores.  We have several hardy birders here that are desperately hoping the next several days yield something fun... and it very well could!  Our friends to the north in Gambell had both a Red-flanked Bluetail and Siberian Accentor today; maybe they'd be willing to share??

11 September 2015

How St. Paul Island ruins birds

At this point in the fall, things are changing and fairly quickly compared to the long and slow journey the summer took to get here.  The sun isn't rising until 8:45 AM and, amazingly, now sets before 10 PM.  Today, with ripping winds out of the north, actually felt like fall complete with wind chills in the 30s.  We had frequent squalls including one with actual sleet (this reminds me of later in the fall when we get squall lines of snow pushing through).

This time of year also means the arrival of some interesting species.  I often that kid that being here on St. Paul Island during the fall will ruin certain species for you.  Of course, it's a bit tongue-in-cheek but here's what I'm getting at.  You see, I wasn't raised in this part of the country.  I spent most of my formative birding years in the Midwest where, not surprisingly, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS are essentially nonexistent.  This Code 3 species, after all, doesn't breed here in North America and if it shows up in the L48, it almost always receives attention (which is how I saw my first one 4 years ago in California).  Then cue coming to St. Paul Island.  Not only are migrant SPTS present (yes, that's the code), they can be downright abundant in the fall.  The first couple you see are amazing and, you know, the next couple are pretty cool too.  But then fast forward a month.  What if you see them every single day?  And what if you see 50+ some days?  Because that's what happens here.

Right now, in mid-September, the numbers of SPTS are starting to peak.  Although we "only" had ~45 today from only 2 different wetlands, I'm sure there are more than 100 on the island currently.  Here's a view of a small flock of SPTS (with a dowitcher thrown in for good measure) on Rocky Lake:
So yes, by the time we leave here in the fall, we'll be thoroughly jaded in terms of Sharp-tailed excitement levels.  But still, and I try to remind myself of this from time to time, it's not only sharp-tailed, it's also sharp looking:
With the changes in the weather came a few new fall arrivals.  In the fashionable new 2015 fall line, we have these 5 handsome EMPEROR GEESE that, for a limited time only, graced the spit on Big Lake:
Although these were the first EMGO seen this year on St. Paul Island (we missed them this spring), I checked my records from last fall on eBird and I had them on 12 different days.  So yes, I think we'll be seeing more of these unique geese in the coming 5 weeks.

Another new arrival yesterday was this lone BAR-TAILED GODWIT that Ash and I found on the shore of Big Lake after 10 PM last night.  With the ISO cranked unusually high, I was at least able to capture proof of its identity instead of seeing a dark blob in the shadows and wondering if it was a Black-tailed:
Thinking back to the spring and all the odd UFO-like sounds being uttered by the omnipresent ROCK SANDPIPERS, it's sometimes a shock to think how much those ruddy brown birds have changed in appearance.  In their winter attire, as they're dressed now, they're a completely different looking creature with gray feathering above and gleaming white undersides:
If you've birded here during the fall season, as hundreds have, you've probably plodded mindlessly through a celery patch.  Yes yes, this must be done.  It's not all bad though.  For example, walking Antone Celery last night with Gavin and his WINGS group was downright scenic:
Did you know that we have 3 wind turbines here on St. Paul Island that help power the airport/hotel complex?  TDX Power, the owner of the turbines, says that this system eliminates $200,000 each year in utility electric charges.  Impressive.  Here's the view of the turbines from last night:
I should add, as I close, that there have been some interesting sightings pop up just this evening.  The biggest news is that Alison, Gavin, and the WINGS group found a PURPLE FINCH tonight representing the 1st ever record for the Pribilofs.  Although Ashley and I zoomed out there immediately, the bird had already moved on.  Bummer.  

Have any questions?  Feel free to shoot me an email at:


07 September 2015

A marbleous sighting

The scoping conditions yesterday morning were absolutely phenomenal.  After David and I realized how calm it was and how good the visibility was, we started just making stops at offshore scoping locations.  Turns out, scoping was rather unproductive; we only tallied 2 YELLOW-BILLED LOONS and we flat out missed any grebes.  But then at Webster Seawatch I caught a glimpse of something wayyyyy out bobbing up and down behind the ripples.  I cranked the scope up to 60x, studied it for a few minutes, and came to the conclusion that was indeed a Brachyramphus murrelet.

Because both Long-billed and Marbled are rare here (4 and 12 records respectively) and Kittlitz's has yet to be reported, we hoofed it south along the beach for at least a half a mile in order to get closer to the bird:
Although the ID wasn't immediately clear, it WAS clear that you could see a bill on it.  Here's a few more pictures:

I eventually and tentatively settled on this being a MARBLED MURRELET (although there is some debate on this now).  Of course, for illustration purposes, what if the only photo I had of the bird was this one?
From this angle, it kind of looks like a Kittlitz's, right?  Sometimes trying to ID something from one photo can lead you very astray!  I think all the previous photos showing the bill in every one of them is enough to show that this isn't a KIMU though.  But what about Long-billed? 

Zap Beach remains full of gulls and seals these days.  Here's a tagged NORTHERN FUR SEAL, one of just a couple I've noticed:
We're seeing more AMERICAN PIPITS around lately including this one along Antone Wall:
Yes, it has giant wingbars but this is no japonicus.  Hopefully I'll have more photos of the real thing later this month...