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St. Paul in Fall

Birders go to the remote Pribilof Islands, primarily St. Paul Island, in fall for the same reason that they go to Gambell – to look for wandering migrants. Depending on the winds and the date and on which birds find their way to these islands, the migrants can arrive from nearly anywhere. While birders who are trying to increase their lists of birds that they have seen on these particular islands welcome any rarity, whether it be from the east (from the North American mainland) or from any land to the west, most of the birders who spend time on these remote islands in fall are really hoping for rare Asian migrants.

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So, even though I had already seen most of the colorful summer residents of St. Paul this spring (see my ABA blog post from June 16th) I went back again this fall to see if I could see any Asian or European rarities. While I was scheduled to be on St. Paul from September 20-25, I got an extra two days added to my trip due to plane problems and very, very foggy weather, and this helped increase the number of birds on my trip list.

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Most of the island specialties (puffins, auklets, murres) no longer dominate the birding in fall, and in fact were not usually seen in any great numbers in most of our birding forays. Generally all day long, except at mealtimes, these forays involved birders being driven around in two vans that drove separate routes, so that each of the likely birdy-possible spots on the island were checked by someone at least once each day. In the fall most of the birding, similar to at Gambell, involved repeated checking of likely locations where arriving rarities might have dropped down from the skies. These checks on St. Paul included pushing our way through large expanses of wild celery plants, some of which were shoulder-high on me, to see if some little birds were hiding there. We also drove by most of the island’s lakes and ponds, did periodic sea watches, looked to see if any birds were hiding in the tall stacks of crab pots, wandered past and through areas with rock interspersed with mossy and grassy patches, and drove the roads slowly in the mornings looking for roadside passerines. The island bird-guides kept in contact with each other by radio, email and text. When a bird of interest was found, the vans would converge and a hunt to refind the bird would ensue.

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The big St. Paul news of this fall, unfortunately just before I arrived on the island, was the finding of a bird that while I was on St. Paul I only heard but did not see even though there was an intense search for it day after day. I did not count it, and hope that in the future I will see a Pallas’s Rosefinch. Maybe next year.

I did get to see most of the other rarities that were noted during my stay on St. Paul, as well as the common island birds. Because the year was already far along, because I had been to St. Paul in spring, and because just before going to St. Paul I had been at Gambell, I only saw 4 species on St. Paul in fall that I had not already seen in Alaska in 2015 (of the 83 species that I have seen for the year on St. Paul). Only one of these, the Red-flanked Bluetail, was a new bird for me, but sadly I did not get a picture before it disappeared completely from its rocky ridgetop perch.

Waterfowl were around but not in huge numbers. A couple of lakes had modest populations of Northern Pintails, wigeons (Eurasian and American) were still present in small numbers, bobbing flocks of Harlequins appeared on the waves in the coastal areas, and there were a few Long-tailed Ducks, scoters, Greater Scaup, a single King Eider and an Emperor Goose, but while I was there no waterfowl rarities appeared.

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Snow Buntings, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches; Lapland Longspurs, and Pacific Wrens were common in spring and still quite common in fall. Common US passerines that had not been on St. Paul when I visited in spring but in fall were present in small numbers were Fox Sparrows and Golden-crowned Sparrows. We also saw a single Gray-cheeked Thrush, a single American Robin, a single Red-throated Pipit, a single Savannah Sparrow, a single White-winged Crossbill, random flocks of redpolls (included a couple of Hoary Redpolls), and a sprinkling of Pine Siskins.

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The shorebird populations had changed since spring. Rock Sandpipers were common during both visits, but clearly decreasing in fall, even during my short visit. Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, well known as fall-only visitors were seen regularly along pond edges and on the roads. Small flocks of Pacific Golden-Plovers, which had been not much in evidence in spring, were commonly seen on the roads and in the shorter grassy areas. I did not see Ruddy Turnstones in spring, but in fall they were everywhere on the roads and shorelines, most of them the young of the year or others in nonbreeding plumage. Small numbers of Long-billed Dowitchers were seen along a couple of pond edges and Wandering Tattlers could be found on some of the rocky shores (although previously seen by others I did not get to see a Gray-tailed Tattler). The highlight shorebirds were both snipe species – a Jack Snipe and a Common Snipe, both seen by our group at Pumphouse Lake, which turned out to be a rather treacherous spot for wading in some of the low vegetation shore areas.

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Most of the Red-legged Kittiwakes were gone from the island, but there were large numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes, often loafing on a spit in Big Lake. On a couple of occasions, a Slaty-backed Gull appeared within the kittiwake masses, and there were always a couple of handfuls of Glaucous-winged Gulls, joined occasionally by a Glaucous Gull.

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Other species including pelagic species that I saw consisted primarily of a few Short-tailed Shearwaters, a few flyby loons (Arctic, Yellow-billed), cormorants (primarily Red-faced), and samplings of some of the remaining alcids, including my second Ancient Murrelet of the year.

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In fall, St. Paul Island is (as is Gambell on St. Lawrence Island) a definite must-bird location for any birder seeking to expand the birder’s US bird list or Alaskan bird list. There are no guarantees of course, but visiting these island places has tremendous potential.

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