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Local Big Year Birder Helps Discover New Whale Species

This story isn’t about birding so much, but it is about a birder. If you are a birder or a naturalist active on social media you’ve might have seen the news that a new species of beaked whale, potentially dubbed Beradius beringiae, on a secluded shore of St. George Island in the Pribilofs. New species are always a big deal, particularly when they come from such a charismatic ground as whales, and the fact that this species has been mostly hiding from the rest of the world in its deep Bering Sea haunts is remarkable and exciting.

As it now turns out, the species wasn’t entirely unknown, Japanese whalers have hinted at its existence for years and a whale skeleton displayed in the gymnasium of a high school in the Aleutians looks to be this species as well, but there’s nothing like a whole body specimen to really tie everything together. There’s good information on all of this here from National Geographic and here from the Anchorage Daily News. It’s a neat story, but what is really interesting is the story of the birder at the center of it.

Two years ago Christian Hagenlocher, whose name you may recall from our regular Big Year updates, was birding St. George Island. That, in and of itself, is pretty odd, as most birders pass on St. George for the larger and better covered St. Paul. Hagenlocher had other obligations, however, as he was doing seasonal work seeking to reduce bird strikes with commercial aircraft at the airport on the island. In his free time, he took the opportunity to bird one of North America’s most remote, and rarity-rich, regions.

St. George remains relatively unexplored,” said Christian, “and is more of a challenge to bird solo due to the limited road system. I did however, spot some great birds in my free time such as a female Smew, Whiskered Auklet, several stints, Gray-tailed Tattler, King Eider, and a pair of eurasian (white-fronted) type Barn Swallows”

But Hagenlocher’s most exciting find was not a bird. While seeking birds in the hours after a storm, he found a whale – dead, and washed up on the black sand of Zapadni Bay on the southwest side of the island.

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“When I spotted a white whale carcass, I assumed I’d found a beluga- which was pretty exciting!”, recalled Hagenlocher.  “With closer examination I couldn’t tell what kind of whale it was, and I reported it to the island mammal biologists the next day.”

Karin Holser, who was also working with seals in the Pribs, was the first to hear about his find. She traveled to see the animal and, realizing that the animal did not match up with any known species of whale, passed on photos to whale experts in Alaska and beyond. The story is fairly well documented in the press from there on out. The whale turned out to be something very different.  The mystery of the skeleton in the gym and the stories from Japanese whalers were solved. A few tissue samples housed in museums in Japan and the US were even determined to be this same strange cetacean.

Birders are used to looking for the unexpected. It is, perhaps, one of the most exciting things about our hobby. But I can’t imagine any of us would expect to find an entirely new species of animal on a secluded beach at the end of the world.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Gregg Gorton

    A remarkable example of how birding can inspire curiosity about many other aspects of the natural world…. This reminds me of an old saying: “Forget theory, just pay attention!”. Thanks for writing about Hagenlocher’s find, Nate.

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