“That’s the way it is with jackpot birding.”
ABA Events czar George Armistead and I were discussing the recently concluded Rarity Hunt on St. Paul Island, Alaska. As with all migration birding, it’s all about the weather.
“You had beautiful weather, too bad about the birds”, he continued.
Well, not really. I had the trip of a lifetime, even if I didn’t see quite as many great birds as the people who were there a week before or a week after I was there. But the weather, which can be notoriously bad (as I write this, the birders still there are facing 75mph winds), was very nice … Indian Summerish, actually.
St. Paul is quite literally out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s about 775 miles WSW of Anchorage, and about 560 miles from the nearest Russian mainland. During late September/October, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers outnumber Pectoral Sandpipers, and Pacific Golden Plovers outnumber American. Ruddy Turnstones run down the roadsides like Lapland Longspurs, and Lapland Longspurs sit up on the wild celery umbels like goldfinches. After my first hour on the island, I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. None of the rules that steer my birding back home in Illinois apply here. Passerines are few (except for the longspurs, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and Snow Buntings), and a songbird flushing from the roadside is almost as likely to be some Asian vagrant as anything else.
ABA ran two trips to St. Paul in September, with sold-out groups arriving on the 18th and on the 25th—I arrived on the 27th. On their first day of birding, group one found two code-4 species: Fork-tailed Swift and Gray-streaked Flycatcher. Later that week, they found a Common Rosefinch and the long-staying White-tailed Eagle gave good views. All of these birds, with the exception of the swift, remained long enough for the second group to get to see them as well. And, a day or so before the first group arrived, the guides, Doug Gochfeld, Gavin Beiber and Scott Schuette, found a Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler!
Another thing I quickly learned: this ain’t no sittin’ by a water feature in south Texas waitin’ for a rarity to show up birding. This is get your butt up off the bus, get out there, and kick it up out of the putchkie patches* birding. Miles of putchkie. Anyone who thought this would be strolling along nice paths while fantastic birds displayed themselves, was in for a rude awakening. But soooo worth the effort.
In addition to the birds mentioned above, the putchkie marches also kicked up an Olive-backed Pipit, several Bramblings, a Red-throated Pipit and, 3 days after I left, the first North American record of Common Redstart! Other great birds seen during the 16-or-so days that ABA folk were there included: Mottled Petrel, Common Snipe, Red-necked Stint, Gray-tailed Tattler and Eyebrowed Thrush. Of course, not everyone got to see all of these birds, but man, what a collection! It was also great to be able to have long, detailed study of Pacific Golden Plover and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, plus the two Pribilof “endemics”: the ptilocnemis subspecies of Rock Sandpiper, and the positively huge umbrina subspecies of Gray-crowned Rosy Finch.
I had expected St. Paul to be like other arctic islands I had seen pictures of: lots of gravelly, scree, rocky wasteland, with patches of vegetation that the birds hide in. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It can be described in one word: lush … okay, two words: green and lush. Alright, three. Green, lush and rocky. The vegetation, however, is at most 4 feet tall. Six 3-foot tall, wind-mangled yews in front of the Coast Guard installation are locally known as “St. Paul National Forest.” But that 4-foot-tall vegetation can hide birds just well as tropical rainforest. The birds have to be walked out.
They also have to be walked out of the crab pots. These are the large mesh cages (see photos below) used for harvesting king crab. Just outside town, they are stacked in huge rows up to 25-feet high, and offer secluded, wind-free respite for tired birds. A couple of weeks before the ABA groups arrived, the crab pots held an Asian Brown Flycatcher, but are most famous for the Brown Hawk Owl found there in 2007.
This trip was a new kind of venture for the ABA, and I think taken as a whole, a success. Are there things that might be done differently next time? There always are. But this is high-octane birding. Jackpot birding, as George put it. It can be tough working a 12-hour day, with only 17 species to show for it, and nothing you didn’t see yesterday, doing the same thing in the same places. But then a White-tailed Eagle, or Fork-tailed Swift flies by … or an ABA area first pops out of the putchkie in front of you. Game on!
* A word or two about putchkie patches. Putchkie is a local name for wild celery (Angelica lucida), also called ik’ituk. It grows in groves—on windswept hillsides only 8-inches tall, or in more sheltered areas up to 4-feet—and not only hides birds very well, it can be very difficult to walk through. It was still in bloom in places, and where the flowers were fresh, there were a lot of flies and other insects. Walking the patches in an organized manner is a relatively new thing here, and has produced some stunning ABA area records. I can’t wait to see what pops out of the putchkie next.
Here’s a few pictures from this year’s Rarity Hunt … maybe you’ll consider joining us next year?