As much fun as it is to bird in far away places, there is always a feeling of “what did I miss” that accompanies being away. In 2013 when I did my (first?) Big Year in the State, I spe…
As much fun as it is to bird in far away places, there is always a feeling of “what did I miss” that accompanies being away. In 2013 when I did my (first?) Big Year in the State, I spent 11 days in Texas during the peak of migration (April) and then essentially all of November in Peru (heavy duty birding on an organized trip) and Florida (light birding on a non-birding trip). I know I missed some birds while I was away but those were fun trips in their own right and there is more to birding than just having a Washington list. Right? Right…
Returning from elsewhere though it always feels like I need to get out and revisit some favorite places and especially in early summer, one of those places is Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County north of Spokane. I first visited the area in 2012 – on a WOS Conference trip. The first trip where I really got to know and fell in love with Calispell Lake was a terrific trip with Jon Isacoff and George Pagos in June 2013. Jon was the best possible tour guide. George and I joined him as part of our own two day whirlwind in Eastern Washington that found 108 species and added 10 new birds to my year list.
While I wanted to get back to Pend Oreille County and particularly Calispell Lake because of the beauty I also had a list of target birds – some new for the year and some new photos for the year and those targets to some degree determined my route and schedule. However I had originally thought it would be a three day trip and as it turned out, some of the successes and some changes in the weather cut that short and once again it was but a two day visit – a VERY LONG two day visit.
A first stop was at the Hyak area feeders at the Snoqualmie Summit to see what hummers were around – even early in the morning some Rufous Hummers were coming for their sugar fix – a good way to start a trip. Next I hit Bullfrog Pond – continuing to move its way up on my favorite birding stops and one where I can generally find Gray Catbirds and also a good spot for Veery. Both were new for the year and easily found. The Catbirds cooperated for a photo but the Veeries were heard only (many). All told 33 species but nothing new or exciting. Birds do not have to be either new or exciting to be greatly valued and appreciated and I just like the feel of this area anyhow so I was in very good spirits when I left.
I continued East with Potholes Reservoir being the next spot on my agenda. Along the way I had one of those strange coincidences that occur in birding. Heading south on Highway 26 on the east side of the Columbia I saw a birder getting back into her car putting a scope away. As a corollary of the rule to look for the birders when you are chasing a bird, I always try to ask birders I meet what they have seen. Turns out this birder was Carol Riddell -an Edmonds neighbor. She, too, was off on an Eastern Washington quest – travelling to meet a friend. We shared notes and headed off to similar but different locations. Potholes was a bust as it often is and the hoped for Forster’s Tern was a no show – not much else showed either and the long necked grebes out in the reservoir were Westerns and distant – not Clark’s and close. My consolation prize were some first of year (FOY) Eastern Kingbirds.
Lind Coulee can be a great birding spot or can be almost completely devoid of birds. On this day, it was mostly the latter BUT one of the very few birds present was indeed a lovely and fairly nearby Clark’s Grebe. Last year a single Clark’s Grebe swam close to a Western providing one of those guidebook comparison experiences where the field marks could be easily noted. This year I was pleased to see the red eye completely outside the black making it a Clark’s Grebe and although alone still a great photo opportunity.
Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe (Lind Coulee 2015)
Clark’s Grebe (Lind Coulee 2016)
Terry Little is a great source for birds/areas in Spokane and environs and I followed an Ebird post of his to visit the Hawk Creek area in Lincoln County where birds were plentiful including a Least Flycatcher with its constant Che-Bekking call. Also in Lincoln County I birded 7 Mile Road a usually dependable place for Grasshopper Sparrows (which cooperated and posed again).
My next stop was Ames Lake where I had numerous Black Terns last year. There were at least 25 present Wednesday afternoon but none the next day. (It was much windier the second day and this was the only difference.) There may be a better way but I had to backtrack on I-90 and park on the freeway shoulder to get a shot at the terns and the photo – my last stop before my low budget hotel outside Spokane. Thankfully there was no visit from the Washington State Patrol.
My motel was … well it had a bed … and even though breakfast (such as it was) was included, supposedly it was not available until 6:00 a.m. – a reasonable time for most but my birding usually gets me up early so I was pleased to find that I could grab something at 5:30 when I was up and ready to go. An aside…the evening before I had dinner at a nearby spot that catered to truckers. Interesting people watching for sure. Also it had an all you can eat kind of buffet. I passed and had a simple sandwich but if there were world records for most food stacked on a single plate, the holder would surely be the woman who sat two seats down from me – unbelievable. On a much prettier note, my waitress, who I am guessing might have just turned 19 or 20 may well have been the finest looking young woman I have ever seen. I told her so in a grandfatherly kind of way on my way out. I wish I knew someone in the modeling agency business as I think she would be a great model and I also think she could have used a better job. (Would love to add a photo but none available.)
And back to birding…
I headed to Hafer Road in Stevens County. I had good birding there last year and I had noted that Brian Pendleton had a Clay Colored Sparrow there recently so it was a gotta for the trip. I arrived early around 7:00 a.m. and immediately started hearing and seeing birds. In just over an hour along no more than a quarter mile of the road I found 34 species – quite a diverse list including Sora, a flyby Merlin, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Phalarope, House Wren, Gray Catbird and Black Chinned Hummingbird. And the best two species were Clay Colored Sparrow and Least Flycatcher. The former was heard and seen way uphill but absolutely would not move from its perch/territory to give me a photo.
The Least Flycatcher on the other hand was a real mystery at least at first. I thought I heard a “che-bek” call almost as soon as I arrived and it seemed close. I tried playback in shorter and longer doses off and on for parts of the first thirty minutes I was there – nothing – no calls, no movement. So I concentrated on the other good birds. Then I thought I heard the call again – seemingly further away and this time when I played, a male flew in from maybe 50 yards away and landed in a tree quite close but with the sun directly behind it. Easy to tell it was an empid but the back light made for challenging photos and even for clear views.
The guy never shut up for the next 20+ minutes although my only other playback was moving 50 feet away and close to the other side of the road where sunlight was great. No go as it simply would not move from two or three favorite trees – all uphill and backlit. And it was joined by a second small empid and they could have been a nesting pair as only the one sang and the other remained fairly close but nearer to the trunk of the tree. I got the best photo I could and left them alone.
Least Flycatcher (Calling nonstop – and thanks to Photoshop for any detail)
Now off to Pend Oreille County which took me to new territory going up and over a 4000 foot pass along Flowery Trail Road. Good forest and a ski area tucked away meant I had to stop to see what was around. I did not bird all that thoroughly and did not find a hoped for Clark’s Nutcracker, but there were several warblers and both Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes and a Townsend’s Solitaire.
My first target bird in Pend Oreille County was Bobolink which I think of as the “upside down bird” because it is darker below and lighter up above contrary to most birds. A friend calls it “Blondie” because of the yellow/blond cap. In any event it is a bird I look forward to seeing every year and especially to hearing as it sings in flight and as it flutters over the fields. I headed to a spot near Cusick where I had Bobolinks last year. As I was getting close driving on McKenzie Road through perfect habitat (although I was not thinking of that instead being focused on “the next road where they were supposed to be”) I had my window down and played the Bobolink calls to re-familiarize myself with them. I was probably going 30 mph and bingo – a Bobolink flew up out of the field next to me and flew right in front of the car singing away.
The fields were perfect and the bird put on quite the aerial display often landing on higher weeds and then disappearing in shorter grass and then hovering. I got a good photo on one perch and some ok of it in flight. I continued another half mile at most to my “regular” spot where I found two more Bobolinks. There are miles of good fields here and I am sure there are many more Bobolinks around. It used to be that they were readily found at Lateral C at the Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge but I think those birds are either gone, greatly diminished in numbers or unreliable.
Bobolink in Flight
My plan was then to head to Calispell Lake – going along the Westside Calispell Road at first but to cover the entire area and just slowly enjoy it. The weather was changing however and got progressively worse as I worked my way south. I stopped several times along the way and readily found both American Redstarts and Red Eyed Vireos. I know these birds are often found elsewhere in Washington, but I believe this to be the most reliable area and one where they are in good numbers – obviously breeding. The Vireos were posing on open branches singing away while the Redstarts were more furtive and often buried in the foliage. Finally one came out well enough for a decent shot.
Red Eyed Vireo
This area is also fairly reliable for Northern Waterthrush especially in the area by the bridge where I have had them annually. By now the weather had really deteriorated though with both rain and winds. I was able to hear and then see a couple of Waterthrushes but they remained very furtive and I could not grab a photo of any kind – my only disappointment that day. (I include one from the same area last year taken 10 days earlier.) This was almost a junk bird during my recent Alaska trip but is always a treat in Washington.
As I was stopped along the road a local pulled up in an ATV. These intersections can go a number of ways – birders are not always welcome – but when they are it is a highlight of any trip. He owned the land I was looking at and while not a birder, he knew quite a bit and we must have talked for 15 minutes about life there including the grouse and woodpeckers and ducks and birds of prey that were there to be found. He gave me permission to enter the land and in better conditions I might have done so. Almost on cue, a few minutes later I heard a Pileated Woodpecker on the property. With it getting wetter, I decided it was time to leave and headed back south to try for Clay Colored Sparrow on Stroup Road where I have had them in the past and where Terry Little had reported one recently.
Stroup Road is in the Medical Lake area and is one of many grid roads in the basically farming/grassland country. When I got to the “regular” spot at the 90 degree bend to the west at the bottom of Stroup, I saw two cars parked. I assumed they were birders in this way out of the way spot. But instead it was some young folks doing I don’t know what. My concerns that this would ruin the birding proved unfounded when they left shortly after I arrived and I found the photogenic Clay Colored Sparrow quickly. It is not colorful (clay is pretty dull), but the markings are so striking – a really beautiful bird – so it gets two photos.
Clay Colored Sparrow
No longer planning a second night away, the plan became one with another stop at Portholes searching for Forster’s Tern and then to try yet again for a Poorwill photo – this time at Robinson Canyon. First, however, I decided to drive by Para/McCain’s Pond hoping for a photo of American Avocet and maybe the here again gone again Tricolored Blackbirds. The Avocet cooperated and was accompanied by many Black Necked Stilts and a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes. The single Tricolored Blackbird clung tight to the reeds in the heavy wind. As I was leaving I got a bonus bird as a Black Crowned Night Heron flew up and past me – my first photo of it this year.
Black Necked Stilt
Black Crowned Night Heron
When some time later I arrived at Potholes, there were five distant terns – four were clearly Caspians and the other was either a Common or a Forster’s. Although they never came close – through my scope I finally got a good look to see the long reddish bill with a black tip making it a Forster’s.
Forster’s Tern (Potholes 2015)
I include the photo above from 2015 for two reasons – first because it is of a Forster’s Tern at Potholes albeit from a year ago and secondly because although there was no close-in Forster’s Tern this time, in almost the exact same spot there was a gorgeous Great Egret – which I had almost missed as I concentrated on the distant terns.
When I first started birding in Washington in the 1970’s, these birds were generally known as Common Egrets but they were definitely not “common” in Washington. Their range has expanded greatly and are easily found at many places in Eastern Washington and far less frequently west of the Cascades.
I stopped for gas and a sandwich in Ellensburg and headed to Robinson Canyon. A good thing about birding in Washington in June is that there is plenty of daylight. But that is not so good for owling or for trying to find Common Poorwills which are best seen as their eyes reflect spotlights or headlights on dusty roads – when it is dark. I arrived at the Canyon around 8:00 p.m. which meant I still had well over an hour before the sun would be down. I drove in and opened the gate and drove the full length of the Canyon to see what was around (just over a mile perhaps). I could I.D. Pacific Slope, Hammond’s and Gray Flycatchers and Western Wood Pewees and some Robins and Cedar Waxwings. Time to rest and wait for the dark. I did so at an open area not too far past the gate and probably dozed a bit from the long day. Around 9:00 P.M. I started hearing some of the “poor will” calls from which the eponymous Common Poorwill takes it name. They seemed to come from the hillsides along the canyon. So far so good. Now if only one or two would come down for a dust bath in my path.
About 9:15 I drove back up to the end of the road and figured I would just slowly head back down as it got dark. At 9:30 I started this trek and … nothing. No longer hearing the calls and definitely not seeing any birds on the road. When I got back down to the gate, I found two boys with flashlights setting up a camp (or at least I think that is what they were doing). They had clearly just arrived since I had been there recently. I figured they had disturbed whatever birds may have been around as they came in so it was time to leave…defeated yet again. I opened and then reclosed the gate and started home. About a half mile down the now paved road, red eyes gleamed in my headlights and then rose up from the side of the road and flew off. Of all places a Common Poorwill had been in the 18 inch wide strip next to the pavement in some grass. Once again – no photo.
Common Poorwill was one of only three of the 359 species I saw in Washington last year that I failed to photograph. The others were Boreal Owl and Flammulated Owl. I still have hopes for photos of them this year – but not doing well so far.
The missed Common Poorwill photo aside, it had been a really fun trip. Too many miles but definitely not too many birds. Not sure if I will get back to Pend Oreille this year – can pass through on the way to Salmo Mountain if I give that a go again. But I hope to be back many times – just a gorgeous place.
Getting to Nome from Adak meant a flight first to Anchorage and then another to Nome. The first flight was in a combo Alaska Air cargo/passenger jet and again there was lots of room. A comfortable connection in Anchorage and then another Alaska Air combo heading north. This time the plane was pretty full – lots of birders on board – but the flight was relatively short and easy. As I waited for my bags at the quite small Nome airport, I heard a voice “Are you Blair?” and turned around to see a woman from near me in Edmonds, WA whom I had never met but with whom I had exchanged birding information/photos. Small world – birding in Alaska – and here was Pam Meyers. I want to add a shout out here for Alaska Airlines. Just as had been the case with my April trip to Colorado, all flights were on Alaska Airlines and every aspect of the intersection with them was fantastic – easy, quick, friendly, efficient and smooth.
Our first stop was to pick up our vehicle in “Downtown” Nome. Only four on this trip so it was an extended cab pickup with a back seat. Very serviceable and definitely good for our purposes. Then it was a short ride to check in to our Nome abode. Can’t say I have ever stayed at a place with “Dredge” in its name but “Dredge No. 7 Inn – Sluicebox” was to be our Nome Home. Apparently has something to do with Nome’s gold mining history. Perfectly comfortable.
Whatever its previous gold boom past, today Nome is a pretty dismal town – certainly more going on than Adak, but not much. Flat, not scenic, somewhat downtrodden etc. However, once out of the town, it is spectacular with the ocean, vast tundra, mountains and rivers. Quite the beautiful place with lots of good birds. It is also as far north as I have been and definitely the land of the Midnight Sun as on more than one night we were birding in good light until midnight and at most there were perhaps 3 hours of dim light – never completely dark.
There are basically three main roads out of Nome – Council Road and Teller Road each to another “town/settlement” of those names and also the Taylor Road but better known at least for birders as the Kougarok Road. During our four day stay we birded the full length of each including more than one trip on the Council Road. I am going to take the liberty here of going out of sequence and just sharing birding stories without regard to timing – trying as best I can to provide some locational details – and definitely lots of photos. As on Adak, John was a great guide – finder and identifier of birds. We ran into lots of other birders – some local and others on organized trips. For the most part information was shared – always beneficial especially in large areas where pinpoint information can be very helpful.
The main “targets” for the trip were probably Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler and Bristle Thighed Curlew with next in line being Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Willow Ptarmigan, Northern Wheatear, Red Necked Stint, Bar Tailed Godwit and Gray Cheeked Thrush. There was also an outside chance for White Wagtail and maybe some Eiders in addition to Common Eider which we had seen on Adak. As it turned out we found all of these birds except for the Bristle Thighed Curlew despite a very thorough search and this included a Spectacled Eider, the only Eider I had not seen. I had also already seen Northern Wheatear, Bar Tailed Godwit and Red Necked Stint in Washington but the looks here especially in breeding plumage were superior and greatly enjoyed. We also lots of other great birds including many Redpolls both Common and Hoary and the most surprising to me was the number of Long Tailed Jaegers which seemed to be everywhere. Also had many Parasitic Jaegers – all great looks. Some other “common” birds were Lapland Longspurs, Glaucous Gulls and Northern Waterthrushes. I had seen and photographed all of them in Washington, but these breeding birds were spectacular.
Nome birds in no particular order:
Red Necked Phalarope – Beautiful in perfect light along the Council Road
Yellow Billed Loon – found by John in the sea off Council Road. First one I have ever seen in breeding plumage.
Red Throated Loon – the most common loon – seen often – primarily along Council Road.
Pacific Loon – we tried to make it into an Arctic Loon but settled for tis beautiful Pacific Loon in breeding plumage.
Bar Tailed Godwit – several were seen – both male and female.
Black Scoters – in sea off Council Road.
Sabine’s Gull – a very fun find as there was a flock of at least 80 in the “grass” and ponds along Council Road.
Arctic Tern – Much more common than the Aleutian Terns but both were present.
Bluethroat – One of the prized finds – several seen and heard along Kougarok Road.
Arctic Warbler – We found quite a few in a number of places. A Nome specialty.
Wheatear (Male and Female) – A mated pair on Kougarok Road.
Long Tailed Jaeger – We saw these everywhere from the coast to the mountains. Quite common and quite beautiful.
Parasitic Jaeger – not nearly as common as the Long Tailed Jaegers but seen frequently mostly at the lower elevations.
Glaucous Gull – the dominant gull. We also saw some Kittiwakes and Mew Gulls but at most a single Glaucous Winged Gull (or so John said…inside joke)
Short Eared Owl – several seen as we had on Adak.
Gray Cheeked Thrush – seen and heard almost everywhere including in a little clump of brush next to our lodging.
Willow Ptarmigan (Male and Female) – We saw several in the tundra. This was the 19th gallinaceous bird I have seen this year. There are only 4 more “regulars” in the ABA area and I am tempted to try for them all.
Rock Ptarmigan (Winter Plumage) – a consolation on our failed search for the Bristle Thighed Curlew – very cool to add this white form to the breeders we saw at Adak.
Northern Waterthrush – another very common bird – hard to get to sit still for a picture but found almost everywhere.
Spectacled Eider – We were told of this rarity by another group – Hastings Creek/Bay off Council Road. We may have missed a Steller’s Eider but at least I had seen one many years ago in Washington. This was one of the best birds to me for the whole trip.
Common Eider – We saw many in the sea off Council Road and John located a single immature King Eider in a small flock of Common Eiders as well.
Long Tailed Ducks (Male and Female) – In a pond off Council Road.
Hoary Redpoll – Common Redpolls were more numerous and were abundant in town, but we saw many Hoary Redpolls out in the tundra especially.
Common Redpoll – heard and seen frequently including at our motel.
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – We ended up seeing 3 or 4 including two at Teller.
White Wagtail – rarer of the wagtails – one or maybe two seen at pond near Teller.
Red Necked Stint – brilliant in the sunshine together with a number of Western Sandpipers and a single Dunlin.
American Golden Plover – Another consolation prize in our unsuccessful attempt to find the Bristle Thighed Curlew.
Pacific Golden Plover – Seen on both the Council and Kougarok Roads – lower elevation than the American Golden Plovers.
Snow Bunting – the only one we saw – on the Kougarok Road – why couldn’t it have been a McKay’s!!??
Fox Sparrow (Red) – heard and seen at a number of locations.
Yellow Warbler – seen and heard frequently.
Blackpoll Warbler – Council Road – male and female – and lots of mosquitoes.
Sandhill Crane – we saw a good number including a small flock.
Lapland Longspur (Female) – not as common as Redpolls but seen frequently.
We also had good mammal sightings including many Musk Ox, Moose with Calf and a Red Fox.
Musk Ox – we saw several small herds – a “life mammal”.
Moose with Calf – the calf did not appear for quite awhile – certainly looked like it was not very old.
Red Fox – seen on the Council Road.
And of course there was great scenery along the way.
And finally (photo wise at least) the tundra was full of beautiful wildflowers.
On this Nome portion of my trip I added 55 new birds to my Alaska State list bringing the total to 142 (with 129 seen on the trip to all places in Alaska this year). New life birds were: Gray Cheeked Thrush, Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Willow Ptarmigan and Spectacled Eider – making it 16 altogether for the Alaska trip in total. Some misses and some surprise finds – as it almost always is.
There was not a lot of interaction with locals – offered some ivory jewelry in Teller where we also surprisingly found a small store with cold sodas – not even hideously over-priced. Food was not fantastic but there were some decent options in Nome. Definitely a popular place for birders as we intersected both with birders on their own and also several organized groups including one of local educators. The weather was fantastic – no rain and very little wind. High temperature was maybe 70 and the low in the morning was probably high 30’s. The long days were great but I am sure I would not enjoy the corresponding long hours of darkness in the winter (nor the snow or below zero temperatures). I brought sun block and insect repellent and needed both but surprisingly bugs in only a very few places.
It was time to go home and once again Alaska Airlines delivered. Good flight back to Anchorage and then they even moved me up to an earlier flight back to Seattle. Continuing to lead a charmed life, my bags were among the first on the carousel at baggage claim and my ride was on time and it was back to civilization.
I do not expect I will return to either Nome or Adak – but Nome is certainly doable on one’s own – if accommodation and a rental car (both in short supply) can be arranged. I heard many stories about other Alaska birding meccas including Gambell, Attu and the Pribilofs. Maybe some day.
This was the focus of the Zugunruhe Bird Tours trip that had both caught my attention and also gave me the most apprehension. The tour description is included in my previous blog post – essentially it was to be 4 days/nights at sea with some great Alaskan birds as the targets. For most birders the highlights were to be Whiskered Auklet and Short Tailed Albatross with a good chance at Mottled Petrel. Also as described in that earlier blog post, plans were changed and weather both cut off a day at sea and also changed our destination from Sequam Pass to a more protected area.
After another good dinner prepared by Nicole, we left our dock in sheltered seas but that changed as we hit open water and the boat tossed and turned. Not terrible and not scary but this was my first night at sea and sleep was not easy – probably more because of a worry about “what if it gets worse” rather than the conditions themselves. There were maybe only 5 or so hours of darkness anyhow, so sleep was short in any event. But we were here to bird and not to sleep, so getting up and about was welcome even with the boat’s tossing and pitching.
Time out for a description of boat, crew and birders. The Puk Uk was indeed quite comfortable and seaworthy. Onboard Billy Choate was our captain and he was joined by First Mate Oxsana and Cook Nicole – all terrific. John Puschock was our leader and Neil Hayward was helping John as co-leader and spotter. Both had also just led a trip to Attu on the Puk Uk and were terrific with the birds in Alaska.
Neil is the current ABA Big Year leader with 749 species seen in 2013. I just finished reading his brand new chronicle of that year, Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year. Especially enjoyable to birders, it is a great read in any event as Neil very honestly deals with emotions, psychology and “life”. Highly recommended to everyone.
John and Neil were superb and obviously accomplished birders, but others in the group were quite impressive as well, and there was also a fascinating situation/dynamic in that one in the group, Olaf Danielson was well into his own Big Year and seemed poised to break Neil’s record – and Neil was essentially helping him do so. Olaf in fact already held one Big Year record – having seen the most ABA species in one year – nude – shoes, hats and gloves the only exceptions to the no clothes requirement. Olaf’s Nude Big Year was in 2012 and 2013 (so not a calendar year) and resulted in 594 species seen in the buff. Of course there was a book (Olaf is a fiction writer as well as birder, businessman and doctor) and of course it is titled Boobies, Peckers and Tits – the next book on my reading list.
The Rock Ptarmigan was species 700 for the year for Olaf on Adak and he was to add many more during the pelagic and then the return to Adak and he kept his clothes on for all of them. Olaf’s daughter accompanied him. I had her name as Lauren but believe she goes by Lena or maybe that is the name and I am wrong about the other. In any event she is 16, bright, personable and able to both put up with her father and also with a boatload of birders living in close quarters – quite impressive. Impressive too were our other birders. I shared my berth with Bart Whelton from Spokane and Jay Gilliam from Norwalk, Iowa. Both were good company and good birders with ABA lists over 700 and for Bart – a world life list of more than 6000. He had bird lists from places I had not even heard of and had also been to the international spots where I had birded making shared stories easy.
Chris Feeney is from Georgia and was working hard to reach the lofty heights of 800 ABA species. Every new bird was precious and Chris was dedicated and talented in finding them. I think that after Adak and the pelagic, Chris was around 790 (hope I am not short changing him). Rounding out the group were Paul Budde (from Minnesota but now in Washington, D.C.) and Don Harrington – another Minnesotan. Sadly, I did not spend enough time with Paul to learn his story – in part because he may have been the most dedicated birder on deck braving the wind and spray outside more than any of us. Clearly a superb birder I know he has been very active in the Minnesota Ornithological Union. Don also was on my Nome trip and is a great photographer – and that will be my last comment on him.
Back to the boat – here are some photos of the interior and our crew. I really cannot say enough about how good they were and the food really was outstanding.
Nicole in the Galley
John, Bart and Chris at the Benches/Tables
Captain Billy, Nicole, First Mate Oxsana, John and Jay
Olaf and Lauren/Lena Danielson
And now again – back to the birds…
As anyone who has taken a pelagic trip knows, it is an up and down matter – both as relates to the movement of the boat and the presence and absence of birds. There are long periods of time with little or no activity, short bursts of frenzied activity, some sustained activity – especially with chumming and the constant sense of possibility. One challenge is that with some species being so scarce – if you miss the one sighting that may have been the only time the bird was seen and you are out of luck. So there is great incentive to be out on the deck and also great value in having many trained eyes and good shared communication. Heavy seas and heavy winds (often going together) are additional challenges. All in all however, the weather was not too bad and it was possible to find places on the deck where there was at least some shelter from the wind and despite heavy cloud cover, there was very little rain – a big plus.
I am not going to chronicle what was seen when and how many – just going to cut to the chase and then embellish a bit. The two stars of the show for everyone (well except me in a way) were the Whiskered Auklets and the Short Tailed Albatross. The former were numerous and mostly quick flybys or floating on the water but neither close at hand nor in good light. The latter was a single bird – and only a juvenile but oh boy what a bird – especially very up close and personal at our chum stop. I had an extremely brief and poor look and quick picture of an immature Short Tailed Albatross on a Westport Pelagic trip in 2014 so it was not the prized lifer that it was for almost everyone else on board. But being able to see it so well made it easy to appreciate and admire its size and power. Especially the case when it was paired so readily with numerous Laysan Albatrosses both in flight and on the water.
Short Tailed and Laysan Albatrosses
A Short Tailed Albatross is a big bird – 3 foot body and 7 foot wingspan and weighing over 16 pounds (a lot for a bird). When you see a Laysan Albatross alone, it looks big as well but weighs half as much with shorter wings and body. Both are amazing flyers. The Laysan is not common in Washington but I have been fortunate to see one up close and get a good photo and some are seen most years. All albatrosses have huge bills and big feet gving them a gawky look but oh can they fly.
Short Tailed Albatross on Water
Laysan Albatross Landing
Albatrosses with Chum
We also saw a single Black Footed Albatross – the common albatross in Washington where I have seen as many as 170 on a single trip!! The Short Tailed Albatross breeds on Islands off Japan and has a world population of fewer than 2500. The Laysan breeds on Pacific Islands – particularly at Midway Island and has a world population of just under 1 million birds.
The most common species coming to our chum (and also seen while motoring) were Short Tailed Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars. I have seen both in Washington although there the former is far outnumbered by Sooty Shearwaters.
Short Tailed Shearwater
All of these birds are Procellariformes or “tubenoses”. The “tube” is a special gland that allows them to drink seawater and excrete the salt since they live primarily in the open ocean and do not have access to freshwater. On most pelagic trips these birds are one of the highlights but especially in Alaska that honor is shared by the alcids – Northern Hemisphere birds replaced by penguins in the Southern Hemisphere. These were the birds of most interest to me as they would be mostly life birds or at least life picture birds. And of course the Whiskered Auklet was the real prize. It is not that they are rare – just that they have a very limited range. In fact all told we surely saw more than a thousand but only in very few places.
Whiskered Auklet on the Water
These guys do not come in for chumming and always seemed to be flying away from the boat so pictures were a challenge but all were thrilled to add this species to life or year lists – including me. I also added Least and Crested Auklets to my life list and we also saw a few Parakeet Auklets (no photos). They were far less common and again very difficult to photograph. A single poor picture of the former but none of the latter.
On my trip to Glacier Bay I had looked very hard for and finally found a single Horned Puffin. It was one of the birds I most wanted to see and photograph on this trip. Surprisingly all puffins were few and far between and I managed to see only a handful of Horned Puffins and was able only to get pretty crummy photos.
We had many Common Murres but a disappointment was that we had no Thick Billed Murres – not a life bird as I have seen the one that hung out at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles but a good photo would have been nice. And while we did have some Ancient Murrelets, no Long Billed Murrelets which would have been a great surprise and welcomed.
While there were some misses on the trip (there always are) there was also a great unexpected bonus (which there sometimes are). We never saw a Mottled Petrel – hopefully someday in Washington for example. We had seen a few Back Legged Kittiwakes – nice and expected birds. Again birds I have seen often in Washington. What I had not seen and knew was only remotely possible was a Red Legged Kittiwake. I believe it was Neil that first spotted the bird and I fortunately was on deck and close when he did. It was not around long, but it was cooperative and while my photos do not show the red legs (they are folded up and tucked in when the bird is in flight), I could readily see the smaller yellow bill and darker mantle that distinguishes it from its black legged cousin.
Red Legged Kittiwake
As can be seen from all of the photos – it was pretty dismal gray the whole time we were at sea. But all in all a very pleasant trip with moderate (15-25 knot) winds and ok seas. It is tempting to go into details on some of Nicole’s food creations but I am trying to lose some of the weight gained on the trip and do not want to be tempted – especially the amazing pizzas she created from scratch. We generally anchored for the nights in calm sheltered waters and I slept much better than expected and fortunately had no seasickness at all. Neither did anyone else.
I was not sure where to insert this trip highlight and figure this is as good a spot as any. It is often the case that small birds will inadvertently fly onto ships at sea. This is true on pelagic birding trips as well and I have seen a number of passerines on Westport trips. But we were treated to some truly special visitors on our journey. One night we had both a Leach’s and a Fork Tailed Storm Petrel fly on board. Another time we were visited by one of the Whiskered Auklets. The latter was not able to get up enough “go” to fly off over the railing so it was captured and viewed closely by all before it was released. So much better than the distant fleeting views in rolling seas, under gray skies from a bouncing boat.
Whiskered Auklet Onboard
As I indicated in the previous post, we birded an additional morning when we returned to Adak. I forgot to add them then so will now. One of the nice sightings on Adak was not of birds but of always beautiful Sea Otters – usually a mom with baby floating by her side or on her stomach.
At sea we had also come across a small group of Steller’s Sea Lions. Only a brief look at some Orcas and a couple of distant whales but nothing else on the marine mammal front.
Steller’s Sea Lions
After the morning back on Adak, the bad news was saying goodbye to a fascinating place and some wonderful people. The good news was that our plane was on time and weather would not be a problem for the trip to Anchorage and then to Nome. It had been a good trip. I added 30 species to my Alaska List and the following 10 species to my ABA List:
Far Eastern Curlew, Kittzlitz’s Murrelet, Rock Ptarmigan, Aleutian Tern, Common Snipe, Hawfinch, Whiskered Auklet, Least Auklet, Crested Auklet, and Red Legged Kittiwake.
It was now off to Nome and more adventures.
My birding experience in Alaska had been very limited – some incidental birding on a business trip to Anchorage in 1979, more incidental birding on a fishing trip to Alexander Creek in 1986 and a visit to Juneau and Glacier Bay with my kids in 1995. Those three trips resulted in a State List of 40 birds with the best ones being Boreal Owl, Horned Puffin and Hoary Redpoll. It was time to return for a concentrated trip to see some Alaska specialties and add to my ABA List. I had come to know John Puschock and thus know of his unique trips through his Zugunruhe Bird Tours to remote Alaskan destinations. He told me of a private trip he had arranged to Nome and I was interested. But that was a long way to go for just a four day trip so when he said he had room available on a very unique pelagic trip from Adak Island the makings of an Alaskan adventure was in order and I was interested.
The tour description: “This pelagic trip targets three of North America’s most-wanted pelagic species: Whiskered Auklet, Short-tailed Albatross, and Mottled Petrel. Other birds that are very likely including Laysan (usually in big numbers) and Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, Short-tailed Shearwater, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common and Thick-billed Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet, Cassin’s, Parakeet, Least, and Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffin. Both Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelet and Aleutian Tern can be seen fairly easily at Adak after the trip.” I was sold and signed up – with the Nome trip to be an add on after the 5 day Adak trip.
My blogging skills are not sufficient to share all the great moments and birds from the Alaskan trips and a single blogpost is far too limited to include even those experiences that I can relate so there will be three posts: this one covers birding on Adak Island before and after the pelagic trip; Part II will cover the pelagic trip itself and Part III will cover the extension to Nome.
Rather than chancing delays and disconnects getting from Seattle to Adak with only two flights a week to Adak, I opted to fly to Anchorage a day earlier (the origin of all flights to Adak). This gave me a chance to do some limited birding around my motel – specifically at Lake Spenard and Lake Hood in spectacular weather on the morning of May 29 before my flight to Adak. Nothing terribly exciting although the single Pectoral Sandpiper I found was an Ebird “rarity” and my Alaska Life List was increased to 57 birds. Moreso it certainly got me into the mood for some more specialized Alaskan birding and I was excited when I boarded the Alaska Airlines flight for Adak on the afternoon of May 29th. I was not looking forward to the flight but having a full row to myself (indeed 6 rows if I wanted them) was appreciated. The flight was easy with views mostly of clouds below. The sign welcoming us to the primitive Adak airport was thought provoking and accurate: “Adak, Alaska – Birthplace of the Winds”
Adak History and Geography
Adak is located in the Andreanof Islands, 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage and 350 miles west of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, at the end of the Aleutian Island Chain. It is the southern-most community in Alaska and has 122 sq. miles of land and 5 sq. miles of water. The Aleutians were historically occupied by Aleuts. Once heavily-populated Adak island was filled with many Aleut villages that were later abandoned in the early 1800s as the Aleut hunters followed the Russian fur trade Eastward and famine set in on the Andreanof Island group. However, they continued to actively hunt and fish around the island over years, until World War II broke out and Attu Island was occupied by the Japanese. This led to the establishment of a military presence on Adak beginning in August 1942 and Adak was attacked by Japanese fighter planes which strafed the island and dropped a few bombs in October 1942. Thus Adak was one of only a handful of places on U.S. soil actually subjected to an enemy air raid.
After World War II, Adak was developed as a Naval Air Station after the War, playing an important role during the Cold War as a submarine surveillance center. Large earthquakes rocked the Island in 1957, 1964 and 1977. At its peak, the station housed 6,000 naval personnel and their families. In 1994, severe cut-backs occurred, and family housing and schools were closed. The station officially closed on March 31, 1997, and currently houses approximately 30 Navy personnel and 200 civilian caretakers. Today the scene is quite sad as the abandoned military housing and installations are in great disrepair and have been vandalized and stripped of materials.
And now back to the birding…
It was definitely comforting to be see John Puschock at the airport. I do not want to even ponder what I would have done had he not been there. But as was the case throughout the trips, logistics were well handled by John and it was time to go birding. I met other members of the tour group including Neil Hayward, of ABA Big Year fame, who was serving as a co-leader on the trip. Much more on all of the participants later, but suffice it to say that I was in the company of extremely accomplished birders, all but one of whom had been to Alaska before for some serious birding and were now back on focused missions to add specific birds to very impressive lists.
We piled into two vehicles and were off in pursuit of one of those “vagrant specialties” that make these remote locations magnetic for birders. On a nearby beach we located two birds – a Whimbrel (Eurasian subspecies or race) and the real gem – a Far Eastern Curlew. So not long after arriving I had my first “lifer” and, if the Whimbrel is someday recognized as a distinct species and not a race, maybe two. While I “may” have been able myself to recognize the Far Eastern Curlew as different from the Long Billed Curlew found in my home Washington State, it was nice to be in the company of experts and also to know that in fact the Long Billed Curlew was not ever seen on Adak in any event. And this is what made birding here so appealing – even though there was not much bird density (except for Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and Lapland Longspurs – and more on them later) each bird was possibly or even likely to be something special and maybe even very special.
Far Eastern Curlew and Eurasian Whimbrel
Two more special birds were also seen fairly quickly, Aleutian Tern and Kittzlitz’s Murrelet. Both were life birds and high on my “target list” for the trip. I had expected to see both and probably frequently. Such was the case for the terns but we saw only a few of the Murrelets so it was particularly great to get photos of the first pair seen.
It had been a long day but in this part of Alaska, the days are very long in the summer and the sun shines (well at least shines through the cloud cover) for most of the day so all internal clocks are off. Time now to settle in to our boat that was to be home for the next 4 days and to head off on our pelagic journey — well not so fast. Heavy winds and heavy seas required a “Plan B” as it would be impossible to head to Sequam Pass that night – our target area for the Whiskered Auklets and more. It was determined to wait another day to bird more on Adak and then to either keep the original objective or to go to an alternate more weather friendly location.
Our home away from home was the M/V Puk-uk, a 72-foot vessel custom-built for Alaska charters. I had been on many pelagic birding trips out of Westport, Washington where I had encountered less than perfect weather, and a single pelagic trip out of Cape Town South Africa, where I had encountered truly scary weather, but these had all been day trips and I had not yet spent a single night onboard a boat of any kind. My apprehension was not assuaged when it was necessary to deal with a less than familiar obstacle course of ladders, railings, planks, barges and docks to get on board, but Captain Billy Choate and his crew made us very comfortable and once aboard the quarters may have been compact but the accommodation was comfortable and welcoming.
M/V Puk Uk
I had prepared for possible sea-sickness with an adequate supply of Dramamine and some wristbands but when I saw that most of the other birders were using scopolamine patches, I wondered if I would be ok with what would be ahead. So perhaps it was best that this first night would be anchored at the dock with minimal movement and calm conditions. I had been sick onboard only once – and I think it was more a question of something I had eaten than the sea movement – but I had seen many others with seasickness and I wanted no part of it.
Life on board was actually quite good. Our staterooms/berths were small (I shared a room with two others – Bart from Washington and Jay from Iowa) which meant there was an extra bunk which together with some “closet” space left plenty of room for cameras, binoculars and bags. Most importantly the kitchen and common room were super and more importantly still; Nicole our cook was terrific – as long as you followed the important rule to stay out of her kitchen space. Good food helps any situation. (Pictures will be added in Part II which covers the pelagic trip.)
With the changed plans, we birded Adak again the following morning. It started off with a mystery that sadly could not be solved. I left the boat to take my gear up the convoluted route to get to the cars. This involved some very tight passages and I did not want my camera and lens hanging down as it usually did so I packed in my pack to carry it up the ladders etc. When I got up onto the dock where the cars were parked I noticed maybe a dozen gulls. A Slaty Backed Gull had been seen by some in the group the night before so I paid some attention and among the Glaucous Winged Gulls I saw one with a very dark mantle, a white head and tail, a few very small white specks on its wingtips AND quite yellow bill, legs and feet. I could not remember the leg color of the Slaty Backed Gull and had great photos of that species from Tacoma in Washington. My camera was stowed away so I made the mistake of not immediately digging it out for a photo. My sense was that it was not a “small gull” – that is it was not Mew Gull sized for example.
The “Path” from Boat to Dock
When John and Neil came up onto the dock later I asked what gull here might have a dark mantle and yellow legs and feet and the answer essentially was “none”. I have definitely made observation errors before and certainly will again, but there was no doubt to me that the field marks of yellow legs and feet and dark mantle were accurate. And same for the clear head and tail. Without a photo or a more conscious and conscientious observation, the identity will have to remain a mystery. As I thought about it, it seemed at least consistent with Lesser Black Backed Gulls I have seen in Washington. Who knows…
As we birded the island we were able to add another special Asian Vagrant – Common Snipe. This is again a situation where having experts around was critical as the species is very similar to the Wilson’s Snipe (our snipe in Washington) which is also present on Adak and at one time both were considered the same species. But the call and winnowing sound are different – immediately recognized by John and Neil. It was quite overcast this day, so light for photos was not great, but I was able to capture a winnowing snipe which actually shows the individual tail feathers – and counting them is another way to distinguish the species.
We actually had access to only a small portion of Adak Island but the roads were good and we visited a number of likely spots including within the town and the abandoned housing, various other structures in the hills, the coast and inlets and “the Adak Forest”. The letter is pretty hilarious as Adak is essentially without trees and the forest is a small copse of stunted evergreens up one of the hills. John and Neil had placed seed near some of the trees (including a couple in town) and we scoured the trees carefully. Unfortunately at least on this day, we saw only “common birds” – Lapland Longspurs and Gray Rosy Finches. I have seen and photographed both often in Washington but I was excited to see the longspurs in full breeding plumage for the first time – truly beautiful birds.
The Adak “Forest”
Gray Crowned Rosy Finch
A Gyrfalcon had been seen frequently on the Island and this is the one bird that I was actually the first to spot as we traversed the hills. At first just a distant glance but then we followed it quite a distance and found it perched on one of the structures and it put on a great show. I have seen this species in Washington (including one this year and a gorgeous “white bird” three years ago, but it is always a treat). Not the greatest photos – but as just stated – always a treat.
As reported in an earlier blog post, I had already enjoyed a great year for “chickens” – gallinaceous birds such as quail, grouse etc. as a result of my wonderful trip to Colorado. I had 13 species of gallinaceous birds there with 4 additional species seen in Washington. This was all the more reason that I was eager to see two new “life chickens” in Alaska – Rock and Willow Ptarmigans. Adak delivered on the Rock Ptarmigan – seen frequently in the tundra in the hills – usually flying away from us as we drove by. But one cooperated for a nice photo and life bird number 5 for the trip. (More will be written on it in the last post but I also got the Willow Ptarmigan later at Nome).
This is where I am going to mix and match a bit as after the added day of birding on Adak we returned to the boat and took off for the pelagic part of the trip in a different Plan B direction. We returned after that for another morning of birding on Adak and I want to cover that here as well. Before our arrival at Adak on May 29th some other great birds had been seen including some Hawfinches, and a Temminck’s Stint. (Much earlier my prize bird had been seen – a pair of Smew). On our last morning on Adak we found one of these prizes – a nice male Hawfinch – an ABA life bird for me although I had seen them in Hungary more than 15 years ago.
It was time now to head back to Anchorage. Adak was fun and as will be written in the next post, so too was the pelagic trip. We missed the Red Faced Cormorants that were usually seen on Adak – too windy – but had some other birds that could not be counted on. Definitely a strange and mostly unwelcoming place in many ways. But great birding and great birding company. I don’t know that I will ever be back so definitely glad to have made the journey.