Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pribilof Islands--9/11-23/2015

In the spring I decided that I wanted to return this fall to bird at St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs which is located in the Bering Sea.   It is north of the Aleutian Island chain, and south of Russia.  The plane flight from Anchorage takes about 3 hours.  I had visited here for 20 days back in September and October of 2013. You can read my blog posts from that trip by checking the entries for those months of that year.

I talked with some other birding friends about joining me.  Three committed early on to also come--John Vanderpoel, Dan Sanders and Doreene Linzell.  Dan and Doreene had been with me for part of my visit in 2013, and John had most recently come to the island in 2011 during his big year. Once we arrived on Friday afternoon the 11th, we were joined by 2 more birders (Barbara Carlson and Sue Drown), and then mid trip Neil Hayward surprised us when he arrived on Friday the 18th.  The photo below was taken by one of our guides at Hutchinson Cut near the end of our stay (from left to right:  Neil, Dan, Doreene, John, me, Barbara, and Sue.  Click on any photo to enlarge.  All photos were taken by me unless attributed to someone else).

Given how remote and small St. Paul Island is, this is a place only visited by very committed birders.  The fall weather is generally mixed rain, clouds and some sun with temps in September during the day in the mid 40's to low 50's, and upper 30's at night.  It is usually windy (10-20 mph) to very windy with gusts well over 40 mph during big storms.  At the beginning of our stay the sun rose around 8:45 AM and set around 9:45 PM, and with each passing day we lost about 5 minutes of daylight.  It is definitely challenging birding involving walking between 5 and 10 miles a day, including thru dense patches of wild celery, and riding in a van or bus to reach the different best birding spots.

The daily routine involved 3 birding segments.  The morning period was from 9 to 11:30, and generally began by driving slowly along one of the 3 main roads in hopes of finding an Asian passerine. The after lunch segment began by 12:30 and finished between 5 and 5:30.  The evening session would begin between 6 and 6:30, and finish up anywhere from 8-9:30.  A few days after the first 6 of us arrived, other birders also came onto the island, and they formed a second group to provide even more thorough coverage each day of the island's birding hotspots.

The bird guiding/transportation is provided by St. Paul Island Tours which is led by Scott Schuette.  He was assisted by Cory Gregory and Alison Vilag.  Each day one of the 3 would be our guide for the day. 

Birders visit St. Paul Island from mid May through early October, with most of them coming either from late May to mid June, and again from mid August into early October.  The attraction is the breeding seabird colonies on the island which include puffins, auklets, murres and cormorants plus the slim possibility to see lost/rare Asian shorebirds, ducks and passerines.

On our first day we visited a cliff that during the summer is covered with breeding seabirds like the horned puffin (photos above and below taken by Neil Hayward), and even in September has a few still roosting there.  We also saw a pacific wren which we did not see back in 2013 because the previous severe winter had been very hard on the wrens.

Friday the 11th and Saturday the 12th proved fairly uneventful with our best bird being a brambling (ABA code 3) that we saw briefly in the upper cut of the quarry.  There were also a very rare for the island Barrow's goldeneye with some injury that kept it from flying, and a solitary sandpiper .  We looked for the wood sandpipers that had been around, but they had left.  Instead we did see many sharp-tailed and pectoral sandpipers. We did see most days when we drove the road out to Southwest Point a group of young foxes that were living in a culvert that ran under the road.

Sunday brought our first significant storm with winds out of the west that drove the rain sideways.  It was so bad that we did not bird the afternoon segment that day.  It did give us hope that some Asian vagrants would be brought in with the storm.

The island is also home to 1/2 million northern fur seals.  As you drive the roads you encounter signs telling you which of the rookeries you are near.  There are viewing blinds at a couple where you can get nice photos of the seals.  The seals return to the island each May, and generally return to their life at sea by October.  The baby seals are taken care of by their mothers on land until they get old enough to move into the water and learn to swim (photo by Neil Hayward).  Once they leave in October they will not return to land until the following May. Because of the huge number of seals, there are also orcas that are seen regularly.

The six of us birded together each day, working hard with our guide for the day to try to locate new birds that were at least new for our trip, even better if new for the island for any of us, and best if a new ABA life bird.

On Monday the 14th, we were checking out Webster Lake.  Everyone but me was scanning the lake for birds.  I happened to see a swift shaped bird with a dark body and wings cross my vision.  It was flying very fast because of the high winds.  As it flew by me at eye height at a distance of about 150 feet, I realized it was a pacific swift (code 4) when I saw its bright white rump.  By the time I shouted out to the group, it had disappeared from sight.  We all walked over to the small gazebo it had flown by to try to relocate it, but it was gone with the wind.  I was very frustrated about not getting anyone else on it because in 2013 we also had a pacific swift fly by at Webster Lake that only some of our group saw well.

One of the spots checked daily is the large line of stacked metal crab pots (more like big cages) that are used during the winter months to catch dungeness crab.  Since there are no trees on the island, they serve as a surrogate forest for birds.  In 2013 I walked these pots every day, but never turned up any rarities.  Finally on Wednesday afternoon the 16th we had a really high number of birds in the pots including a brambling.  We took this as an omen that the next day might be really good.

Thursday did not let us down.  We started out driving the road to Southwest Point where we found a first year horned puffin walking on the road.  Scott had said he had never seen one doing that before, so we thought it might be in trouble.  We caught it, and I held it during the 5 minute ride to the Antone seawall.  It was covered with a towel and seemed to be pretty calm.  That was not the case when Scott took it to release it back to the sea.

After dropping off the puffin, we visited Southwest Point and did some seawatching.  We also found our first emperor goose for the trip.  It was sitting on cormorant rock with lots of cormorants and gulls.

Next up after lunch we flushed our first common snipe (code 3) for the trip at Dump Pond.  This was also a life bird for Sue who had never been to the Pribs, and was already up to about 10 new ABA area life birds.  We saw a rare for the island yellow-shafted northern flicker between Big Lake and Webster Lake. Later in the afternoon we flushed a sky lark (code 3), which was not seen by all, and we could not relocate it.

We then got word that Alison, and Doug Gochfeld (a former guide for St. Paul Island Tours who had come out on Wednesday the 16th along with Tom Johnson) had flushed an ovenbird--a first ever sighting for the island.  Scott wanted to try to see it to add to his island life list (240+).  We stomped thru some pretty dense celery, but could not relocate it either.  Then as we were heading back for dinner, Scott gets a message that Alison and Doug had found a siberian rubythroat, but it was over an hour of very difficult walking each way to get to the spot.  Also, only Doug got to see and photograph the bird before it disappeared.  This would have been a life bird for me, but there was not enough daylight after dinner to chase it, so we did not.

Instead, after dinner Doug calls to say a sky lark was near the town cliffs above old town.  We all trooped up and got pretty good views of it (photo taken by Cory Gregory).  This was the second sky lark I had seen with the first being at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island back in 2006.

By now we were all feeling quite good having had such a bountiful day when the call came in that a jack snipe had just been flushed at Pumphouse Lake.  All the birders converged about 8 PM to attempt to flush the snipe again.  When we were all lined up, the guides flushed the bird.  With the sun shining on it as it circled around our group, cheers went up all around (photo taken by Cory Gregory).  The jack snipe is an ABA code 4 bird that is rarely encountered even on St. Paul Island.  It was the number one bird on my wish list for this trip.

On Friday our group was checking the lower cut at Polovina Hill when Scott Schuette drove up to drop Neil off.  I had talked many times with Neil about coming on this trip, but he is getting married in October and did not think he could get away.  It was a very nice surprise when he arrived.  He was not able to see the jack snipe later that afternoon, but it was found on Saturday evening the 19th, so he got to see it as did the rest of us one more time.

Saturday afternoon we all had a chance to see again one of at least 2 sky larks that had come to the island.  This one was the one we assume we saw 2 days earlier in the same spot near the town cliffs. The sky lark site provided good views of the Russian orthodox church, and the new town across the harbor.

Saturday the 19th was pretty uneventful other than all of us getting to see the jack snipe again.  Sunday however would prove to be the most significant day of our trip.  It began with Doug picking us up to be our "guest" guide for the day.

We drove out to Southwest point after a quick drive to Reef Point.  Seawatch gave us our first relatively close looks of least auklets.  Unlike the puffins and murres, all the different breeding auklets leave the breeding cliffs before September.  We also had a couple of fly over bramblings.

After checking the crab pots without anything exciting there, we got a call that Cory had found want might have been a common rosefinch in the upper cut of the quarry.  Back in 2013 we had seen a female common rosefinch on Black Diamond Hill.  We drove over to join Cory's birding group to make an attempt to relocate the mystery finch.  We all climbed up to the ridge line as soon as Alison said she was looking at the bird.  Unfortunately, before we could all reach her, the bird moved.

We were able to spread out to search for it again.  Doug and I were looking down the boulder strewn slope when it suddenly flew across below us and landed back over where most of the others were standing.  Then it flew up over their heads and back down into the upper cut.  As it flew by me, I could see the very red rump, streaking in the back with red tones there as well.  Neil was able to get a decent photo.

When Cory first saw the bird, he heard its call which did not match that of a common rosefinch.  As it flew by Doug and myself, the bird called again, and Doug said the same thing.  We all climbed back down into the cut, but the bird could not be relocated.

We next visited for the second time on this trip the Zapadni Ravine where we found an arctic warbler--a bird I had seen in 2013 at the Pribs, and earlier near Nome in 2006.  

After dinner we drove the road that goes to the northeast of the island.  On our way up to Hutchinson Cut, we almost ran over a red phalarope.  On the way back we decided to pick it up because it seemed so tired.  It rode in a boot for 5 minutes until we could release it at Webster Lake.  Opposite Webster Lake, we spent some time sea watching and found a king eider on the shore.  We stopped at Barabaras and flushed either a wilson or common snipe.

That evening we were able to study the photos taken of the finch, and it appeared to be a Pallas's rosefinch which the call heard by the guides corroborated.  If that was the case, it would be a first record of the Pallas's rosefinch in the ABA area. So on Monday the 21st, one of our goals was to try to relocate the mystery finch in an effort to get even better photos. In the morning we birded elsewhere, and also right after lunch.  We then got word that Alison's group had located in the upper cut of the quarry what they believed was a taiga flycatcher--another possible life bird for most of us.

We drove down to the quarry, and once again climbed up on the ridge to look for the tiaga as well as the finch that had also been seen and photographed well.  Those new photos were even better and supported the belief that the mystery bird was in fact a Pallas's rosefinch.  We did not succeed in finding either bird.

The rest of our day of birding was uneventful, but knowing that the Pallas's rosefinch had a very good chance of being accepted now because of even better photos made all of us very jubilant.  Neil now had seen one confirmed ABA first in 2013 during his big year when he saw a common redstart on the island, and now a possible 2nd first with the Pallas's rosefinch.

We awoke on Tuesday the 22nd to read on Narba that a red-flanked bluetail had also been seen on the island.  At breakfast we found out that the evening before the guides had studied Alison's photos of the taiga flycatcher, and had changed the ID to a bluetail.  This review was only possible because of the age of digital cameras.  And the good documentation for the review by the Alaska, and ABA bird review committees for the Pallas's rosefinch is also because of the magic of digital photography.

The rest of Tuesday the 22nd and our partial day of birding before flying out on Wednesday gave us no new life birds, but we did add some new trip birds like pine siskin, hermit thrush and a mallard.  We visited most of the places we had been to so many times already on this trip.  We saw our last of many rainbows generated by a rain squall during our 13 days of birding.  My trip list for the full group ended up at 81 species of birds, and I added 14 new birds to my St. Paul Island life list bringing the total seen there to 106 species.  I was very pleased to add the jack snipe and potentially the Pallas's rosefinch to my ABA area life list, and of course was disappointed in missing out on the siberian rubythroat (code 3) and the red-flanked bluetail (code 4)--but you just can't get them all!