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Archive for August, 2015

News flash – I just saw my 600th ABA bird! Please pardon this interruption to my series of Alaska posts, but this is just too exciting to not share now. Birders, feel free to skip ahead while I attempt to explain to my non-birding friends just what an “ABA bird” is. ABA is the American Birding Association, a wonderful organization that serves birders with publications aimed at improving birding skills, promotion of conservation, summer camps for teens, and lots of other fun and important birding stuff. It is also the official keeper of LISTS. Avid birders love lists and ABA members can report theirs for comparison to other birders. The “ABA area” is basically all of North America north of Mexico. So, a birder’s ABA list is the list of all the birds that he or she has observed in the ABA area.

Green Heron - The ABA

Green Heron – The ABA “Bird of the Year” for 2015

Back in the 1960s, it was quite an accomplishment to join the “600 Club.” But, the Internet, email, listservs, eBird, Facebook, and cell phones have totally changed birding from a few decades ago. Now, news of a rare bird travels fast and within hours dozens of birders may see a rarity. This rapid communication has enabled many to see 700 species in the ABA area and some have even observed over 800 ABA birds, but that achievement requires a lot of time, money, energy, and ambition. To put these numbers in perspective, there are only 671 regularly occurring birds in North America and many of those are found only in small numbers in particular locations. Another 308 species are rare and many of those have been observed in North America only a few times.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

Whooping Cranes. Photo: International Crane Foundation.

I was getting close to 600 ABA birds when I left for Alaska in June. I needed 42 more and there were 42 birds on last year’s trip list that I had not seen. I had a chance! But, birds change from year to year and I got only 40 ABA birds in Alaska. I needed two more birds. And, then I learned that the non-migratory Whooping Cranes that I had seen in Florida last year were now countable. I needed only one more bird! Of course, I was excited about the possibilities, but this wasn’t going to be easy. I would figure out a plan for #600 later.

On August 11, I left for Gainesville, Florida, for a family visit. I planned to just drive down, visit family, and drive back home. I didn’t even take my scope or hiking shoes. Since I got back from Alaska a few weeks earlier, I had not paid much attention to what was happening outside my home county. But, after I got to Florida, I discovered that Smooth-billed Anis were being reported at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge every day. There was mention of a nest, so I expected the birds to continue to be there for a while. I had seen Anis in Ecuador, but not in the ABA area. This could be my #600! I altered my plans so that I could drive to South Florida and see the Anis after visiting with my family.

Smooth-billed Ani

Smooth-billed Ani

I didn’t know if a scope was required or not, but I wanted to be sure that I’d have the best views possible. Fortunately, Angel & Mariel Abreu of Nature Is Awesome Birding & Wildlife Tours were available for the day. They would also try to help me get Black-whiskered Vireo for #601 and we could spend the remainder of the day looking for South Florida specialty butterflies.

On August 16, we arrived at Loxahatchee at 9:00 AM and found two Smooth-billed Anis right away. They could not have been more cooperative and we had fun watching the birds preen and fly around a little, but never out of sight. We could see detail in every feather with the scope and we got good photos.

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

Mariel and I celebrating my 600th ABA bird

We also saw the first two of six new butterflies for me that day, Phaon Crescent and Ruddy Daggerwing.

Ruddy Daggerwing

Ruddy Daggerwing

Phaon Crescent

Phaon Crescent

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the Anis and drove down to Key Largo to look for the Black-whiskered Vireos that Angel and Mariel had scouted the previous day. They both saw three birds after just a few minutes, but it took over two hours for me to get a satisfying look. Angel and Mariel never once complained while we stood there in the August heat. Finally, I got a good enough look at one of the birds and we moved on to look for more butterflies.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

We went to an area of the Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site that requires a backcountry pass, which the Abreus had obtained the previous day when scouting for the vireo. We saw a few birds and a Florida Purplewing, a rare butterfly that is officially listed as a “Species of Special Concern” due to its declining population and disappearance from most of its historic range. I’m sure that the beautiful Purplewing was the highlight of the day for Angel and Mariel.

Florida Purplewing

Florida Purplewing

Our last stop was at a pine rockland preservation in Homestead. At first glance, it looked like any other Florida pine forest with saw palmetto understory. But, as soon as we stepped off the path and carefully walked through the rocks, I could see how different this was. Pine rockland exists only in southern Florida and parts of the Bahamas. It is typically a savanna-like forest on limestone outcroppings with a canopy of Florida Slash Pine and a diverse understory of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Pine rocklands are home to a significant number of rare plants and animals found in no other habitat, including several Federally Endangered plants. Its delicate beauty becomes apparent once you really look at the life it hosts. Sadly, pine rockland is an endangered ecosystem with only a few fragments remaining in South Florida and some of those are slated for development.

Baracoa Skipper

Baracoa Skipper

Ceranus Blue

Ceranus Blue

Butterflies we found there were Baracoa Skipper and Ceranus Blue.

Curve-lined Cydosia Moth

Our last sighting of the day, just before dark at that same location, was the Curve-lined Cydosia Moth in the photo to the left, which is found from southern Florida south to Argentina. This beautiful moth is not very common and it was new to all of us.

I could not have asked for a more cooperative or interesting bird for ABA #600.  Thanks to Angel and Mariel for another fun day. As always, I left South Florida looking forward to returning again soon.

My next post will be another on Alaska.  Follow along with me on more birding adventures.

Angel Mariel and me

Angel, Mariel, and me

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The Pribilof Islands host more than 2.5 million nesting seabirds each year, mostly on St. George, which has the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. But fog makes travel to St. George unpredictable with frequent delays and cancelled flights. So, after our return from Nome, we flew to St. Paul Island on June 14th.  The island has a human population of about 500 and an avian population of nearly 200,000 in late spring. The regular breeding seabirds of St. Paul include about a dozen species of murres, auklets, kittiwakes, puffins, Red-faced Cormorant, and Northern Fulmar. Close-up views of these birds are enough to delight any birder. In addition, Siberian vagrants predictably show up on St. Paul. Predictable does not mean that you have any idea which rare birds will show up; just that it is very likely that something unusual will appear on the island during any week in spring.

Anchorage to St Paul

The birding routine on St. Paul is the same for everyone. You fly from Anchorage on Pen Air, the only airline that serves St. Paul and St. George Islands. You stay at the King Eider Hotel, the only hotel on the island, and eat at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria, where the folks from The Deadliest Catch also eat. The hotel is basic, but comfortable. Each room has a double bed or two twin beds and the bathrooms are down the hall. The food at the cafeteria is very good. The Alaska Native corporation, TDX, owns over 95% of St. Paul Island, including St. Paul Island Tours, which employs the birding guides. The three birding guides rotate the job of shuttling birders around the island in a bus to the cliffs, lakes, and various birding areas.  In the photo below is Ridge Wall – one of the best places to view nesting seabirds.

Come in a little closer and you can see that all those white dots on the edges of the cliff are birds.  Those below are mostly Thick-billed Murres.

On our second full day, Scott Schuette had taken us to several birding spots around the island. Mid-afternoon, we were on our way back to the hotel for a bathroom break when Scott announced “The pit stop is cancelled. Alison just found a Hawfinch.” Hawfinch is a rare Asian visitor to the Pribilofs and it would be a life bird for most of us including Bill. We drove as fast as the dirt roads would allow to the Tim’s Pond area in hopes of seeing this rarity. Scott stopped on the road closest to the area where Alison had seen the bird and we starting trekking over the tundra. Most of the birders in our group saw the Hawfinch as it flew overhead several times. I did not; I just couldn’t get on it in flight. But, we were lucky and finally got it in the scope when it landed on the ground. It wasn’t a great look, but one that I could count. Alison tells a very interesting story about this day in her blog post, A Lifer for Bill.

I was not able to get a photo of the Hawfinch, but I did get photos of some nesting seabirds.  What could be cuter than this pair of Tufted Puffins?

Tufted Puffins

Tufted Puffins

Least Auklets are pretty cute, too.

Least Auklets

Two other species of auklets nest on the island, the Parakeet Auklets shown in the photo below and Crested Auklets.  We saw all three species.

Parakeet Auklets

Parakeet Auklets

And, here are those Thick-billed Murres again, really close-up.  This is the most common nesting seabird on St. Paul Island.

Thick-billed Murres

Thick-billed Murres

St. Paul is the largest of the Pribilof Islands with a total area of 43 square miles. The typical temperature in June is in the low 40s and the high wind and humidity give the summer air a raw chilliness.

Arctic LupineAmazingly, three small songbirds are year-round residents in this harsh climate of St. Paul Island – Winter Wren, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Snow Bunting. One additional songbird joins them for the breeding season – Lapland Longspur. The other avian life on the island consists of mostly seabirds, ducks, and shorebirds.

The landscape is marine tundra; there are no trees. Arctic Lupine and Wild Celery grow all over the island. Despite its name, the Wild Celery in Alaska bears no resemblance to the edible vegetable celery, although it is a valuable food for wildlife. The image to the left is a postcard that depicts the lupine exactly like it looked most mornings on St. Paul.

The Rosy-Finches were one of my favorite species of the entire trip.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

And, how their looks change with just a little puffing up and a different perspectve!

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

The Rock Sandpipers were another of my favorite St. Paul Island breeding birds.

Rock Sandpiper

Rock Sandpiper

One afternoon, I enjoyed some time with Red-necked Phalaropes at a little pond while the others trekked further out over the tundra.  Phalaropes are fascinating birds.  They are known for spinning in circles to flush small aquatic prey to the water’s surface where they can easily pluck it with their bills.  Also, phalaropes exhibit what scientists call “reverse sexual dimorphism” which simply means that the girls are prettier than the boys.  The typical courtship and parental roles are also reversed in phalaropes.  Females fight ferociously over males.  After they are paired up, the male builds a simple nest in which the female lays four eggs.  And, then she flies away leaving the male to incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks after they hatch.

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Several other birds bounced around the edges of the little pond with the phalaropes, including Semipalmated Plovers.  This species is familiar to most birders due to its wide wintering range, including the southern part the U.S. mainland coasts, but it breeds in Alaska and northern Canada.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Our four day/three night stay on St. Paul Island was over all too quickly.  All three of our birding guides, Scott Schuette, Cory Gregory, and Alison Vilag, were excellent birders and took great efforts to ensure that we saw all the birds on the island and had good looks at everything.  We couldn’t have asked for more, except maybe to go back again!

Heading to lunch at the Trident cafeteria

Heading to lunch at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria

Next in my adventure – Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park

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I don’t remember a time that I didn’t want to visit Alaska. It’s a big expensive trip, though, so it had not risen to top of my travel plans until Bill Drummond wrote last year inviting me to go on his 23rd and last trip to Alaska. I wanted to go with Bill because of his extensive experience in Alaska, so I signed up for the 3-week birding trip. And, I would have a bonus. My friend, Diane, wanted to go on the trip, but could not get the time off from work, so we decided that I would stay another week after Bill’s trip and she would fly out to meet me. The two of us would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula. Nearly a year after committing to the trip, I flew to Anchorage on June 7. The next morning I flew to Nome to meet Bill, co-leader Dave Hursh, and the rest of our group. Nome was much smaller than I’d expected with a population under 4,000. It seemed that all the visitors to the town were birders, some with organized groups and some on their own. There are three main roads leading out from Nome, each about 75 miles long, but no roads or railways connect Nome to other major Alaskan cities. Birding in Nome consists of driving these three roads. Birds are spread out in breeding season, with large groups only along the coast of the Bering Sea. The appeal to birders isn’t numbers, though, but birds that are found nowhere else.

Male Willow Ptarmigan on the Kougarok Road

Male Willow Ptarmigan on the Kougarok Road

The avian star of Nome is the Bristle-thighed Curlew (click link for fantastic photo and info), a shorebird that looks a lot like a Whimbrel.  This rare bird with a population well under 10,000 is known to breed only on inland tundra in the steep hills of western Alaska.  Nests are frequently placed directly beneath dwarf willow shrubs. Two sites near Nome are the only places where birders can see the curlew on its breeding grounds. On our first full day in Nome, June 9, our goal was to see this bird, Bill’s favorite. We choose the easier site, at mile 72 on Kougarok Road, as most birders do, but it still took several hours to climb the hill on the spongy and uneven tundra. There were interesting sights on our way up the hill, though – tiny tundra flowers, nesting Long-tailed Jaegers, Willow Ptarmigan. I did not get the close look at the curlews that I’d hoped for, but just as exciting was a bird that flew directly overhead uttering its distinctive call.

A female Willow Ptarmigan, part way up the hill to the curlews.

A female Willow Ptarmigan, part way up the hill to the curlews.

On June 10, we spent the day closer to Nome where we found Musk Oxen not far from town. As rough looking as they are, underneath that tangled mess is an undercoat of fine wool that is eight times warmer than sheep wool and softer than cashmere. Musk Ox are not sheared; the fine wool is collected by hand combing or picking from bushes the animals rub against during molt. As you can guess, it is highly prized and very expensive.

Musk Oxen

Musk Oxen

Lapland Longspurs are common breeding birds in Alaska. We saw them everywhere except around Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula.

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur

We drove to Teller on June 11. One of our target birds was Arctic Warbler, a regular breeder near Nome. Our caravan of cars carrying our 22 birders stayed in close contact via 2-way radios. This day, I was riding in the same car with Bill.  When we reached an area with willows where we expected to find the warblers, the others started down a side road. Bill said, “We usually see them right here,” so our car stopped and we got out. Immediately, I heard Pete say “I’m on it” and my binoculars were soon on it, too.  Everyone else came to where we were and all had good views.

Arctic Warbler

Arctic Warbler

Another pleasant stop that day was at the bridge over the Sinuk River. It was a gorgeous day and some beautiful birds cooperated for photographs. I had seen Red-throated Loons before – in winter.  Seeing their glowing red throats in breeding plumage was almost like getting a life bird.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

The lovely and amazing Arctic Terns really were life birds. They have the longest annual migration of any animal on earth. Recent studies that placed geolocators on Arctic Terns discovered that their zigzag flights between their tundra breeding grounds and their wintering grounds off of Antarctica average 44,000 miles annually!

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

We spent most of June 12th birding the first 20 miles of the Council Road between Nome and Safety Sound. We were lucky to see another of our targets, Arctic Loon.  We found two birds close to shore and I was able to get a photo before we watched them swim farther out into the sea.

Arctic Loons

Arctic Loons

As expected, we saw lots of gulls along the coast. Glaucous Gulls were common in Nome.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull (first summer/2nd cycle?)

Another fun sighting was not a bird, but a female Moose who had just given birth on the opposite side of the river along the road. The first group to arrive saw the baby stand on wobbly legs and nurse. By the time that I got there, the baby had lain down close to mom. Moose with calf The next day we flew back to Anchorage, but not before a little more birding along the coast. We had good looks at a first summer Slaty-backed Gull feeding with other gulls on the washed-up carcass of a walrus.

Slaty-backed Gull

Slaty-backed Gull (2nd cycle)

Back in Anchorage that afternoon, we had time to check out Lake Hood right behind the Coast International Hotel where we were staying. Lake Hood is the busiest seaplane base in the world, so I was surprised to see birds there at all. But, apparently they love this lake, so much so that they have been a continuous problem there.  In an effort to reduce Lake Hood’s bird population in the early 1990s, officials released three female pigs named Larry, Curly, and Moe on the island that separates the takeoff and taxi lanes. The plan was for the pigs to rototill nest spots and eat eggs that the birds managed to lay. The pigs were effective for a while, but the effort ultimately failed. There are no longer pigs at Lake Hood, but birds remain, including beautiful Red-necked Grebes.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe on Lake Hood

This is just part one of my month-long Alaska adventure. Stay tuned for more!

Next story in this series of six – Alaska 2015: The Pit Stop is Cancelled

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