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.