The last couple weeks on St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilofs have been very good ones, but the best bird of the season so far came yesterday when the TDX St. Paul Island Tours guys found an ABA Code 5 White-throated Needletail on the island. This is only the 6th record for the ABA Area and, most notably, the first record away from the outer Aleutians.
Prior to this record, Attu Island has three previous reports of this species (1978, 1984, 2013). The other two are from nearby Shemya (1974, 1985). It has only been seen in the ABA Area twice since 1985.
All sight records likely refer to the migratory caudacutus subspecies.
St Paul Island is accessible by air via several Alaskan airports, notably Anchorage, on Penair Airlines.
For more information on rare birds being seen on the Pribilofs, see the Alaska Birding listserv for regular reports from Scott Schuette and others guiding on the island this spring.
I was delighted to be able in May to participate in the third year of Birds ‘n’ Bogs, a Citizen Science Program coordinated through Audubon Alaska and the University of Alaska Anchorage. The program monitors the distribution and productivity of 7 species of boreal birds (Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpipers, Rusty Blackbirds, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and Tree and Violet-Green Swallows) in Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley. These species require wetland habitat, much of which is disappearing. Data collected from this program will allow examination of how changes in wetland habitat may impact the quality of habitat for boreal birds.
Volunteers attended a required orientation and were signed up for or were assigned a particular bog location to monitor. This monitoring consists of three visits by the volunteer to the particular site, one each during particular 6-day periods from May 10 to June 1. In addition, due to migration apparently being early this year in Anchorage, we were asked to try to make an observation during the 6-day period preceding the normal count period. The number of each of these seven species at the site that were seen and heard was to be recorded, as was the birds’ behavior and vocalizations. In addition, we were asked to note down other birds observed at the site. We were asked to make our observations before 8 am or between 6-10 pm if possible.
I was originally assigned one site, Oceanview Bluff Park (a 66-acre city park that I had never before heard of), and then because of one person’s inability to participate, I agreed to monitor a second site as well, Carr Gottstein Park, a 13 acre city park which I had visited often. The bogs in both these parks are on the mudflat area below coastal bluffs on the southwest side of Anchorage. At neither of these sites did I observe two of the goal birds, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Solitary Sandpiper, and only a couple of times did I observe Rusty Blackbirds. My most often-observed goal bird at these sites was Lesser Yellowlegs, closely followed by Greater Yellowlegs and Tree Swallows, with fewer Violet-Green Swallows.
Although I had expected to walk through Oceanview Bluff Park to the adjacent mudflats as part of my monitoring of this site, the bog was so flooded that my observations were limited to viewing and listening from the steep slope going down to the bog and at the grassy area at the edge of the bog. During each visit, Lesser Yellowlegs were present, and usually noisy, sometimes chasing each other across the site, often perching on one of the spruce trees around and in the bog. Wilson’s Snipe (usually 3 or more) called and flew overhead continuously, and Sandhill Cranes were often heard. There were usually Green-winged Teal on the bog’s open water, and singing White-crowned Sparrows in the brush. On my third visit to Oceanview, a young moose was grazing at my usual observation area. Periodically he butted his head against a sign post near the bog and kicked his feet out at the sign, maybe practicing for later duels. I had to wait patiently until he finally wandered off into the bog before I could go down there to see what birds were around.
My observation route at Carr Gottstein Park was a more lengthy route, requiring a walk out to a bluff, down to the mudflats, and along the grassy/wetland zone below the bluff to a couple of tidal ponds. The footing was hummocky and muddy-slippery, and a bit difficult when I was carrying my spotting scope. At my first trip out along this route, I was dutifully watching yellowlegs (1 of each species) and swallows, as well as noticing distant Sandhill Cranes on the mudflats, when suddenly a loud racket burst out from the grasses just ahead of me and I was startled to see a Sandhill Crane, wings widespread, making very angry sounds and motions toward me. A second crane landed at the nearest pond and alertly watched as I very quickly backed away from the angry crane (I snapped a few pictures as I backed).
The next two times that I surveyed Carr Gottstein Park, I did not walk as far, not wanting to disturb the cranes again. I did scan the area and saw the beady eye of a crane just above the grass, clearly ready to respond if I approached too closely. Other birds at this bog included Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, and American Wigeons, a one-time Red-necked Phalarope, Mew Gulls, Arctic Terns, and first-of-the-year Cliff Swallows apparently gathering mud at a pond edge.
Because Sandhill Cranes are one of my favorite bird species, because I do not think I have ever seen very young Sandhill Cranes, and because I was curious to see if any Sandhill Crane youngsters had been produced at Carr Gottstein, I went back to check on this site on June 27 when the tide was way out. The grass was much longer, the few yellowlegs were now up to a flock of 10, Short-billed Dowitchers numbered over 30, including at least two downy young, and the Mew Gulls were in serious attack mode. There were no Sandhill Cranes in the area were the nest had been, but I could see about 20 of them way out on mudflats. I slowly walked across the dried mud toward the distant cranes and eventually saw one crane with a youngster and then another crane with a youngster. These four birds then came together, clearly a family unit, which I prefer to think was the family whose nest I had inadvertently approached too closely in mid-May. I was very careful this time, and I do not think the cranes noticed me at all. As an added bonus for my extra visit to Carr Gottstein were two calling Rusty Blackbirds in a marsh at the base of the bluff.
I hope I am able to participate next year in this project. It always feels so good to go birding when the birding data I collect can be used to help understand the birds and their environment.
Truth told, our birding failures often out-number our birding successes by a large margin, so it’s a good thing there’s always something to learn from a nemesis, as Justine Hausheer shares at The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science.
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