Fantastic rarities and other shorebird highlights, fall migration in full swing on St. Paul Island

At the end of last week, Saturday to be exact, Claudia and I found one of the shorebird highlights of the season so far. We started birding by mid-morning along Salt Lagoon, seeing the usual masses of Rock Sandpipers, many Western Sandpipers and the odd Gray-tailed and Wandering tattlers. Continuing to Pumphouse Lake, we started the loop with high hopes. Pumphouse Lake has been the shorebird mecca on St. Paul Island for the past few weeks with low water levels creating a nice mix of exposed mudflats, sandbars, and small pools fringed by vegetation, in other words something for everybody and good shorebird diversity has been constant on the lake.

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Juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpipers are starting to show up in numbers, this one is doing a pretty good Sharp-tailed Grouse impression Photo Stephan Lorenz

We flushed one of the expected Pectoral Sandpipers, which have been gracing the lake for some time. Moments late another shorebird flushed from the high grass right in front us, a lanky, pale bird about the size of a Lesser Yellowleg with a white rump and back. I yelled “Marsh Sandpiper” and something along the lines of “only the second record for the Pribilofs” and probably a few other things I don’t remember…, but this is roughly what we saw:

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The Marsh Sandpiper in flight on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The bird dropped back into taller grass along the edge of the lake and I could barely make out the top of its head. It tucked in behind a grass tussock out of the strong wind with its bill hidden underneath its wing. I carefully set up the scope and snapped a few photos showing a glint of white amidst the green grass. I moved the scope a bit to get a better angle and the bird raised its head, it was definitely a Marsh Sandpiper. Before I could get a better picture the bird flew, completing a large circle around the lake, calling once or twice. It landed again out of view on the far side of the lake, but then flew again. We stood still not wanting to disturb it, but it did another two circles about the lake before heading towards Cup and Saucer ponds. We waited to make sure everyone who wanted to see it had time to arrive and then found it again settled on the muddy margin of Saucer Pond. The Marsh Sandpiper has so far stayed 5 days and we hope it continues, in the meantime it has offered much better photo opportunities.

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Marsh Sandpiper, 2nd Pribilof record and 11th record for ABA area, nicely settled into Pumphouse Lake Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Marsh Sandpiper on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The weather system that likely brought the Marsh Sandpiper also dropped a Ruff, several juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, another Wood Sandpiper for the season, and added to the counts of Long-billed Dowitchers and Western Sandpipers on Monday 8/14. Add to that continuing Little and Red-necked Stints, plus Gray-tailed Tattlers and it was a good vagrant shorebird week indeed.

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Ruff with juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Photo Stephan Lorenz

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A plump juvenile Red-necked Stint fattening up for migration Photo Stephan Lorenz

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This rather drab and somewhat confusing Little Stint has been on Pumphouse Lake for several days Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Wandering Tattler numbers are increasing daily Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Red Knots are a fairly uncommon migrant in the Pribilofs, but the number has increased to three, one adult and two juveniles Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Long-billed Dowitchers are becoming regular, here a juvenile Photo Stephan Lorenz

On Tuesday 8/15 I walked out onto the mudflats of Salt Lagoon at low tide. This area has been teeming with shorebirds, mainly hundreds of Rock Sandpipers and many Ruddy Turnstones, but also both tattlers and “record-breaking” numbers of Western Sandpipers. The odd stint also makes appearances. I walked along the channel and then out onto the largest expanse of mud when I heard a Common Ringed Plover calling. This species is a surprisingly scarce migrant in the Pribilofs and this was only the 7th local record. Of course I wanted to see the bird and eventually tracked down 2 plovers, occasionally hearing the Common Ringed Plover calling. After sorting through the two birds the Common Ringed Plover was fairly obvious by its slightly longer bill, dark “lores” extending to gape and lower mandible, darker face pattern with a more rounded mask, longer wings, and lack of webbing between the two inner toes, side by side with the Semipalmated it offered a great comparison.

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In direct comparison to the Semiplamated Plover (right) the Common Ringed Plover is slightly longer billed, longer winged, more rounded face mask, more extensive dark lores Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Common Ringed Plover has a longer white wing stripe Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Look, no webbing between two inner toes Common Ringed Plover Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Common Ringed Plover on St. Paul Island, note dark lores extend to gape and lower mandible Photo Stephan Lorenz

Today the island hosted two Ruffs with a male in Tonki wetland and a female (Reeve) on Salt Lagoon.

Other odds and ends have included returning King Eiders and the first songbird migrants with multiple Savanna Sparrows, an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and a very cooperative Red-throated Pipit during the last two days and yes our single resident Bald Eagles flapped over Salt Lagoon carrying a young Black-legged Kittiwake (no photo though). Enjoy a few more photos until next time. Good birding, Stephan.

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Savanna Sparrows are regular migrants on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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juvenile Red-throated Pipit, this is a trans-beringian migrant and fairly common on St. Paul island during the fall Photo Stephan Lorenz

Beginning of August on St. Paul Island: Stints and other shorebird stunts

The beginning of August on St. Paul Island is a time for shorebirds and migrant shorebirds have been on the move since the middle of July. Songbirds are still lagging behind and despite a few redpolls we have not seen much in the small bird department, although that should change starting in a week or so.

Ruddy Turnstones started their southward bound migration in July and have been increasing in numbers ever since with several hundred a day feeding on the kelp beds around the island.

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Ruddy Turnstones Photo Stephan Lorenz

Thus we have turned our binoculars towards the mudflats in Salt Lagoon and the various freshwater wetlands, giving them at least one good look over per day. Pumphouse Lake has been by far the most productive wetland with low water levels exposing mud and sandbars, shallow water among the sedges, and muddy pools. Not surprisingly shorebirds have flocked to the lake and for the past two weeks with up 10 species gracing the lake at a time. Rock Sandpiper number continue to balloon with hundreds upon hundreds in Salt Lagoon and the island’s shoreline.

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Juvenile Rock Sandpipers complement the already high numbers Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other hotspots have included Tonki wetlands and to some degree the Barabaras wetlands, but I have a feeling eventually everything will funnel through Pumphouse Lake anyway. A Semipalmated Sandpiper was a good find one day in Tonki wetlands, but it is important to beware of short-billed Western’s (this one looked good though).

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Semipalmated Sandpiper, note overall color dull and bill short Photo Stephan Lorenz

Throughout August Wandering and Gray-tailed Tattler have been around with the former much more widespread and numerous and the latter mainly sticking to the mud at Salt Lagoon, but with one bird preferring the rocky areas of Southwest Point. The even pitched hollow call of the Wandering sets it apart from the double, plover-like call of the Gray-tailed, but if birds are silent the whiter flanks, lack of barring on under tail, and lighter overall color usually are enough the find the Gray-tailed Tattler. Also a tattler sprinting around on mudflats is usually a Gray-tailed, but not always. We are likely to have both species around for most of the fall.

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Wandering Tattlers have been numerous with daily sightings Photo Stephan Lorenz

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The white flanks and lack of barring on under tail are obvious on this Gray-tailed Tattler Photo Stephan Lorenz

A good number of “peeps” have been passing through with flocks of Western Sandpipers and the occasional stint with up to 2 Red-necked and 2 Little present. Compared to “our” dark-legged peeps, Western and Semipalmated sandpipers, the two similar stints, Red-necked and Little, show distinct structural differences. Western and Semipalmated sandpipers have semipalmations, or partial webbing between the toes especially pronounced between the outer two toes. While this seems like a difficult field mark to see it is actually fairly obvious if the birds are close. It is also equally possible to see the lack of partial webbing especially in photos of the bird moving and is best seen as the bird walks away from or towards the observer. Here are some examples:

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No identification headaches here with this adult Red-necked Stint, but look especially at the left foot where there is a clear lack of palmations Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Even in relatively distant pictures like this adult Little Stint that graced Pumphouse Lake for a few days the lack of palmations are obvious Photo Stephan Lorenz

The stints also have longer primary projections, making them more attenuated and longer looking. In breeding plumage Red-necked Stint and Little Stint show extensive reddish and rufous coloration around the head and neck making the identification fairly easy, but juvenile plumages can be more subtle, although the stints tend to be still brighter.

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The long-billed Western Sandpipers are numerous right now and straight forward to identify Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Most adult shorebirds move through earlier and from now on juveniles will be dominating like this sharp-looking Little Stint Photo Stephan Lorenz

An adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was a great find on Pumphouse Lake where Pectoral Sandpipers have been present for the better part of two weeks.

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Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, adult on Pumphouse Lake Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Pectoral Sandpiper for comparison Photo Stephan Lorenz

Up to three Baird’s Sandpipers hung around Pumphouse for a few days, allowing excellent studies and photo opportunities (note especially the long-winged and attenuated appearance).

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Baird’s Sandpiper Photo Claudia Cavazos

Pacific Golden Plover have been present every day (with up to 15 birds), mostly on the barren tundra where they seem to feed on the ripe moss berries and then fly to Pumphouse Lake to roost and bathe.

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Pacific Golden Plovers Photo Stephan Lorenz

Red Phalaropes are passing by the hundreds to thousands, depending on the weather. I counted at least 300 on Webster Lake one evening with hundreds more flying offshore or feeding just past the turbulent surf. Most of the Red Phalaropes have lost their breeding finery.

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Red Phalarope migrating St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

In addition to the Gray-tailed Tattler, Red-necked and Little stints, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a Common Snipe and “Siberian” Whimbrel (ssp. variegatus) have made appearances from the other side of the pond. The Whimbrel hung around Novastoshna for three days before going missing.

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“Siberian” Whimbrel, poor photo barely showing the white lower back Photo Stephan Lorenz

Another nice shorebird find was a Red Knot, an adult in fading breeding plumage that was joined promptly by a juvenile the following day. This is a somewhat uncommon migrant on St. Paul Island and could have come from either direction.

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Red Knot Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other odds and ends have included a long-staying Sandhill Crane. I wondered what it subsisted on, but during every observation of the bird I could never see what it was taking. I believe it was digging around in moss possibly eating plant material or worms? I flew strongly and appeared healthy, seemingly having left the island.

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This Sandhill Crane may have been around for several week on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Glaucous Gulls seem to be coming in with the approaching fall.

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Glaucous Gull Photo Stephan Lorenz

It is also high time for puffins with both species attending chicks, carrying fish, and generally offering great photographic opportunities. So here are some puffins.

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Horned Puffin pair Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Tufted Puffin in flight Photo Stephan Lorenz

Until next time…

Stephan

Photo Essay: Rock Sandpipers, well… they rock!

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Rock Sandpipers roosting on one of the beaches on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

First-time visitors to St. Paul Island, Alaska are often astonished by the abundance of Rock Sandpipers. Unlike many other species of shorebirds, Rock Sandpipers do not migrate far south and the majority of birders have never seen one, unless they have been to Alaska or searched for the species along wave-battered, rocky shores in the northwest during the winter. Many birders visiting the Pribilofs hope to catch a glimpse of Rock Sandpipers and it usually takes about 30 seconds in the airport parking lot of St. Paul Island. One or two birds invariably forage along the edge of the gravel lot or land in the middle of the road nearby. During the short drive into town visitors ask about the flying shorebird, Rock Sandpiper, what is that one feeding along the margin of the pond, Rock Sandpiper, wait something landed on the roof, Rock Sandpiper, and several hundred shorebirds on the mudflats of Salt Lagoon and a careful scan reveals that they are all… well you guessed it, Rock Sandpipers. While some may actually tire of Rock Sandpipers after two or three days on St. Paul Island, I find them endlessly fascinating.

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Rock Sandpipers are fairly uncommon throughout most of their range, but incredibly abundant on St. Paul Island where several thousand pairs nest Photo Stephan Lorenz

Rock Sandpipers (Calidris ptilocnemis) are restricted to the Pacific Coast in North America and even during the winter usually don’t migrate beyond northern California with exceptional occurrences as far south as Los Angeles. Rock Sandpipers wintering in the northwest often associate with Black Turnstones and Surfbirds along rocky shorelines. The majority remain in southeast Alaska and British Columbia during the nonbreeding season and some Rock Sandpipers are year-round residents on Aleutian Islands. This species winters farther north than any other North American shorebird. Rock Sandpipers migrate north and west in spring to nest on the arctic tundra of western Alaska, the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutians, and the Bering Sea islands.

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A Rock Sandpiper surveys its territory on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Even seasoned birders often have not seen too many Rock Sandpipers, since they winter in low numbers in the Lower 48 States and nest in farflung places. The species is fairly uncommon within its breeding range on mainland Alaska, but very common to abundant on the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea islands. One of the best places to see Rock Sandpipers up close and personal is the aforementioned St. Paul Island, the largest island in the Pribilofs. Here birds gather by the hundreds and breed in every corner of the island. During a single day it is not uncommon to record several hundred birds.

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Rock Sandpipers forage in a wide variety of habitats on St. Paul Island and this individual rests along a section of rocky shoreline Photo Stephan Lorenz

The species is easily recognized and compared to other sandpipers is fairly stocky with short, stout legs. The legs vary in color from yellowish to greenish yellow. The bill is of medium length with a slight downward curve towards the tip. The species is well adapted for foraging in a variety of habitats, including rugged, rocky terrain. Like most shorebirds, Rock Sandpipers feed on insects, mollusks, marine worms, and some vegetation. In breeding plumage Rock Sandpipers have a diffuse black belly patch and upper parts that vary from bright rusty to darker brown. The species is variable with three distinct subspecies found in Alaska alone and a fourth restricted to Russia. Even within a single subspecies birds can range from bright or dark. Watching Rock Sandpipers during the breeding season on St. Paul Island, I often have a very difficult time finding one that looks like another and this high variability makes subspecies determination sometimes difficult. 

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This is a very rusty-colored Rock Sandpiper from St. Paul Island where the nominate ptilocnemis subspecies breeds Photo Stephan Lorenz

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This is the same subspecies as the bird above and was also photographed on St. Paul Island, the coloration of the head can be especially variable, ranging from rusty brown to almost completely white Photo Stephan Lorenz

Rock Sandpipers nest on the ground and incubate 4 speckled, greenish eggs. The nest cup, composed of grasses and moss, is usually tucked under some vegetation. Adult Rock Sandpipers will engage in vigorous distraction displays to lure away potential predators. Before nesting commences, males fly above their territories, often hovering, while giving their frog-like, descending calls. The birds also regularly raise one or two wings to display.

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Typical wing display of a Rock Sandpiper Photo Stephan Lorenz

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This crouched position is part of a distraction display to lure away potential predators Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Rock Sandpiper chicks are precocial and quickly move around on their own, but still under the watchful eye of their parents, look at those massive feet Photo Stephan Lorenz

The chicks will quickly leave the nest and soon feed themselves. It is not uncommon for some of the less travelled roads on St. Paul Island to be busy with Rock Sandpiper chicks trying to get their bearings.

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Rock Sandpiper roosting among kelp St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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An agitated Rock Sandpiper calling during a territorial bout with a neighboring pair on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The nominate subspecies (C. p. ptilocnemis) breeds only on the Pribilof Islands and St. Matthew and Hall Islands in the Bering Sea. This population migrates to the the Alaskan mainland for the winter with large concentrations in Cook Inlet. It is the largest and brightest subspecies and is abundant on St. Paul Island. This “Pribilof” subspecies is generally paler with less black below and has a broader white wing stripe and more white in the tail, especially noticeable in flight.

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An average individual of C. p. ptilocnemis with paler chestnut above and less black below here feeding on kelp St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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The bold, white wing stripe of the nominate subspecies is obvious in flight Photo Stephan Lorenz

Birds breeding on the Alaskan mainland, Alaska Peninsula, and islands of the northern Bering Sea belong to the C. p. tschuktschorum subspecies (say that ten times fast). This is also the subspecies that winters furthest south, reaching the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts. The different subspecies essentially leapfrog during their annual migrations. This subspecies is smaller and darker above with a more extensive blackish belly patch. Although I find the extent of the black underparts is extremely variable and not necessarily a good field mark for subspecies identification.

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This Rock Sandpiper was photographed on St. Lawrence Island where tschuktschorum nests Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Another individual from St. Lawrence Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The subspecies C. p. couesi is somewhat intermediate in color and size and its breeding range is restricted to the Aleutian Islands where it can be common. For example, it can be easily observed on Adak Island. During migration all three subspecies can occur side by side and differences in size and color may be quite obvious.

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A Rock Sandpiper from the Aleutians, specifically this one was photographed on Adak Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Another individual from Adak Island showing some of the variation, especially early in the breeding season Photo Stephan Lorenz

During the winter months Rock Sandpipers molt into a plumage dominated by somber grays.

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A Rock Sandpiper in winter plumage on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Juvenile Rock Sandpiper lack the black coloration on the belly and have fine streaks on the breast. Also the upper parts look finely scaled with fresh feathers. The bill may appear a bit shorter and the legs a brighter yellow.

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Juvenile Rock Sandpiper on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Rock Sandpipers are the most abundant breeding shorebird in the Pribilof Islands. On St. Paul Island, the largest in the Pribilof group, the birds can be found on the roads, grassy tundra, rock promontories, top of hills, beaches, and even on roofs of buildings. Despite being so common, I never tire of observing them closely as they battle for foraging space on washed up kelp, bravely lure away an arctic fox from their concealed nest, or flutter high above the tundra displaying to a mate below. Thus, I think they deserve a few more photographs, so here we go…

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Rock Sandpiper on exposed tundra Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Rock Sandpiper feeding among kelp Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Rock Sandpiper keeping a wary eye on the observer Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Rock Sandpiper perched atop a wild celery flower Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Rock Sandpipers wander through their territory searching for insects and this one took a momentary break to keep an eye on an arctic fox Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Rock Sandpipers are fairly vociferous, calling regularly in flight and from the ground Photo Stephan Lorenz

Birders on Board: Observations and Advice for Birders on a Classic Falkland, South Georgia, Antarctic Peninsula Cruise Part II

This is Part II of our trip to the Antarctic Peninsula via the Falklands and South Georgia. For Part I click here.

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Weddell Seal on Orne Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 12 November 6th At sea between South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula

We settled in for the long crossing between South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. Unfavorable winds and rough conditions lengthened the crossing to nearly three full days. I remained on deck as much as I could watching the birdlife change slowly. Mainly diversity and numbers decreased and during the first day of the crossing I recorded nothing new, but still saw single Gray-headed, Light-mantled, and Black-browed albatross, some Snow, Blue, and White-chinned petrels. The number of Black-bellied Storm-Petrels increased and Cape Petrels were of course always with us. But mostly I saw the dark water of the endless southern ocean with swells building as the ship sailed south.

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Gentoo Penguins on Orne Island with iceberg Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 13 November 7th At sea between South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula

The ship was still steaming south and I spent only limited time on deck. The temperatures became colder and the birdlife less abundant. A single Wandering Albatross stood out, Wilson’s and Black-bellied storm-Petrels were seen, but otherwise I only noted species recorded previously. It was entertaining to watch the icebergs here and there, but otherwise I spent more time relaxing or joining some of the lectures given on board.

Chinstrap Penguin

Chinstrap Penguin Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 14 November 8th At sea nearing the Antarctic Peninsula and Passing of Clarence and Elephant Islands

After two full days at sea we finally saw land again when we sighted Clarence Island in the early evening. Due to adverse weather and timing we had to cancel a landing on Elephant Island, but we could see it as we steamed past. As we neared the Antarctic Peninsula birdlife picked up again and I saw Snowy Sheathbill, Kelp Gull, and Antarctic Tern. Noteworthy were more than 1,000 Southern Fulmars that sat in large rafts on the water and swirled past en masse, outnumbering even the abundant Cape Petrels.

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Icebergs in the Antarctic Peninsula Photo Stephan Lorenz

Blue Petrels increased in numbers and I saw more and more Chinstrap Penguins in the water. Icebergs increased in number and size and towards the end of the day I spotted a single Adelie Penguin riding on one of the ice floes, the first one of the trip. It was great to be back within sight of and we looked forward to the penguin colonies.

Blue Petrel Photo Stephan Lorenz

Blue Petrel Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 15 November 9th Antarctic Sound near Brown Bluff

Nothing had prepared me for the scene this morning and when I arrived on deck the ship was surrounded by massive icebergs. Giant ice floes rested on both sides of the ship with the emerging, straight walls of white the size of skyscrapers. These were continental ice floes that had broken off recently and slowly drifted in the sound. One apparently measured more than 10 miles in length and even our expedition leader stated that she had never seen anything like it. Claudia and I enjoyed the vistas while the ship slowly motored towards Brown Bluff, the destination for the day.

Giant ice floes along the Antarctic Peninsula

Giant ice floes along the Antarctic Peninsula Photo Stephan Lorenz

We had plans to land at the Esperanza Base, an Argentinian station, but the increasing wind and swell thwarted a landing. The ship approached Brown Bluffs and all were on deck, ready to board the zodiacs, when the landing was called off last-minute. Missing the large Adelie Penguin colony at Brown Bluff was another big disappointment, but the weather here is just unpredictable. I went downstairs and grabbed my scope and tripod, putting it up on the bridge we could at least see scores of Adelie Penguins shuffle along the beaches from a distance. The ship made a slow pass of the solid ice blocking the entrance of the Weddell Sea. I scanned the huge ice floes carefully, hoping for Emperor Penguins, but knew the chances were extremely slim and had no luck.

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Glacier in the Antarctic Peninsula Photo Stephan Lorenz

As the ship left the bay, heading for the Gerlache Straight, I saw one fast-flying Antarctic Petrel that raced past and disappeared above one of the giant ice floes. It was not a great view, but definitely one of the best birds of the trip as this species is apparently difficult to find during cruises departing later in the year.

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Esperanza Station in the Antarctic Peninsula Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 16 November 10th Morning Landing at Brown Station in Paradise Harbor and afternoon landing on Orne Island

I woke up early and walked out on deck as soon as I could. The Gerlache Straight was incredibly calm and the numerous icebergs reflected in the mirror-like waters. The only birds in the water were porpoising Gentoo Penguins. The ship kept steaming south into the fortunately ice free straight and we passed the only other cruise ship we saw during our entire trip.

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Gentoo Penguins Photo Stephan Lorenz

Today was going to be the day to finally land on the continent and conditions were ideal. We turned into Paradise Bay and were able to admire the perfectly blue ice until we reached the anchorage. The weather was very calm, perfect conditions for a zodiac cruise and landing at the closed Brown Station. The crew split the participants in half with some landing at the station and other enjoying a cruise past the icebergs, jagged cliffs and to the wall of the glacier in the bay. We then switched activities with people being elated to finally put two feet on solid ground of the White Continent. Birdlife was abundant with a small colony of Gentoo Penguins around the station and nesting Antarctic Shags on the cliffs. It was fun watching the shags fly back and forth, carrying nesting material while porpoising Gentoo Penguins played below.

Antarctic Shag Photo Stephan Lorenz

Antarctic Shag Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 17 November 11th Near South Shetland Islands waiting out weather in Drake Passage

The seas were rough and strong winds ripped through the whitecaps. Instead of making one final landing on the South Shetland Islands the captain decided to take the ship in large circles to wait out worse weather in the Drake Passage. The forecast called for a hurricane in the Drake Passage and the expedition leader thought it wisest to wait. It was still very rough and birding on deck was nearly impossible. I eventually stepped out onto deck by mid-morning and almost immediately spotted an Antarctic Petrel racing past the ship. It circled and I spotted it again among dozens of Cape Petrels. I was able to alert the two other birders on board and they were able to get great views as the bird repeatedly circled. Claudia was even able to see it from one of the portholes in galley. I also managed to see a South Polar Skua briefly.

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Antarctic Petrel Photo Stephan Lorenz

The rest of the day we waited on deck and the crew put on a fun quiz game together that helped pass the time. We still enjoyed some great food and just sat back and waited.

Day 18 November 12th Crossing of the Drake Passage in rough conditions

14 meter waves! Extremely rough conditions after a hurricane passed through the Drake Passage and all of us were confined to our bunks for the day. Needless to say I spent no time on deck birding.

Ice in Paradise Harbor Photo Stephan Lorenz

Ice in Paradise Harbor Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 19 November 13th End the crossing of the Drake Passage and reaching the Beagle Channel by evening

The swells had somewhat receded, but the ship was still lurching heavily. I spent some time on deck and while this part of the crossing is likely very productive with enough time spent looking I saw nothing new. By afternoon it was mostly the ubiquitous Black-browed Albatross that still followed the ship, although I also saw Royal (including one that looked good for Northern) and Wandering. Otherwise Sooty Shearwaters reappeared plus the regular petrels. We disembarked the following morning after what had been a journey of a lifetime.

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Chinstrap Penguin Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Antarctic Petrel Photo Stephan Lorenz

A full list of birds for the trip can be found in Part I.

A Spring to Remember: High Lonesome BirdTours Hits Vagrant Shorebird Jackpot in western Alaska

Curlew Sandpiper Barrow(2)

Curlew Sandpiper in full breeding plumage Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

Beginning with winnowing Common Snipes, through flocks of Wood Sandpipers, add a surprise Little Stint, and finally the mega-rare Pin-tailed Snipe, every single one of our Alaska trips this season had a winning combination of timing, weather, and shorebirds. Each trip picked up at least two or three vagrants from Asia. Participants joining two or more High Lonesome trips to western Alaska this year hit a veritable jackpot of shorebirds. I include some summary statistics followed by detailed descriptions to help you choose future High Lonesome departures to Alaska. While an average year may record four or five vagrant shorebirds, we experienced an exceptional spring season in 2016. Overall our combined trips to Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, and Barrow recorded 46 species of shorebirds. We enjoyed good views a dozen vagrant species, plus five Alaska specialties, and of course seeing North American species in all their breeding finery and displays was also a treat.

Western Sandpiper breeding on Gambell

Western Sandpiper Photo Stephan Lorenz

Red-necked Phalarope Gambell

Red-necked Phalarope Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Pectoral Sandpiper Barrow

Pectoral Sandpiper displaying Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

We started the season with our annual trip to Adak, a remote outpost in the central Aleutians, where we enjoyed Alaska specialties like migrating Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers. A thorough check of Contractor’s Camp, a local shorebird hotspot, revealed two Ruffs, which showed well during the course of our stay. In the same area we enjoyed the displays of no less than four Common Snipe during a clear, calm evening and could really appreciate the subtle differences in plumage and sound. The distinct “Aleutian” subspecies of Rock Sandpiper foraging along Sweeper Creek was also fun to photograph and completed a successful trip.

Ruff Adak

Ruffs on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

Rock Sandpiper Adak

“Aleutian” Rock Sandpiper on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

The west winds had been building throughout the week and by the time our group arrived on St. Paul Island we found ourselves among a flurry of rare shorebirds. We dropped off bags quickly, readied our birding gear, and soon walked through a productive wetland near Tonki Point. After seeing the ever-present Rock Sandpipers, the second species of shorebird we found was a Wood Sandpiper. This vagrant was quickly followed by more of its kind and then two or three Long-toed Stints that revealed their namesake feet clearly in flight. Before we could make it to dinner we were stopped in our tracks by a Common Greenshank on the close shore of Salt Lagoon and this individual stayed throughout our visit offering great photo opportunities.

Wood Sandpiper St. Paul Island

Wood Sandpiper on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Common Greenshank St. Paul Island

Common Greenshank on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

After a delicious dinner we drove back to Salt Lagoon and incredibly added yet another rarity in the form of a Lesser Sand-Plover, a female bird in breeding plumage foraging on the mudflats among scores of Rock Sandpipers. This was going to be difficult to beat, but during the next three days we found even more and in fact we recorded up to ten Wood Sandpipers and half-dozen Long-toed Stints a day. During our first full day we tracked down two Common Sandpipers at the northern point of the island and in the afternoon found a Common Snipe. It took some persistence, but one last check during the third day got us the Curlew Sandpiper that had been seen earlier in the week. The bird was foraging among tide pools and on kelp covered rocks among dozens of Rock Sandpipers and we had great scope studies. Additional highlights from our St. Paul Island visit included Tufted Duck, Brambling, and Siberian Rubythroat.

Lesser Sand Plover St. Paul Island

Lesser Sand Plover on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Least Sandpiper St. Paul Island

Least Sandpipers breed in small numbers on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The vagrant shorebirds continued in Gambell. After our short flight, we quickly dropped off luggage, readied the ATVs, and checked on a reported Terek Sandpiper. The bird was present and offered great scope views and photo opportunities. What a start and continuation of an amazing run of rarities. We drove around Troutman Lake after dinner and managed to find three Common Sandpipers before the day was over. Those were not the best birds yet. It was not until we analyzed the excellent photos taken by our participants of an “interesting” snipe in the Far Boneyard that we realized we had found Gambell’s first Pin-tailed Snipe!

Terek Sandpiper on Gambell 2

Terek Sandpiper at Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Common Sandpiper on Gambell

One of three Common Sandpipers on Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Common Ringed Plovers are a regular breeding species on Gambell, but this year the birds arrived early and in good numbers, allowing us to study and photograph at least two pairs during the course of our visit. When we thought things could not get any better another Wood Sandpiper was found and towards the end of the trip a Common Greenshank, allowing participants that had not been with us to St. Paul Island to catch up with this great vagrant. Several Red-necked Stints seen in the gravel ponds and from the point were just the icing on the cake. Other highlights from Gambell included a White-tailed Eagle, Eye-browed Thrush, Red-throated Pipits, and White and Eastern Yellow wagtails.

Common Ringed Plover on Gambell

Common Ringed Plovers were present in good numbers on Gambell this year Photo Stephan Lorenz

Red-necked Stint Gambell

Red-necked Stint Gambell Photo Stephan Lorenz

Our Nome tour focuses on several shorebird species found mainly in western Alaska with a special emphasis on the Bristle-thighed Curlew. The curlew is an endemic breeding bird to Alaska and migrates to Oceania for the winter. While it was not easy this year, we managed good flight views of the species at its regular haunt along Kougarok Rd. The two other specialties of the Seward Peninsula, Pacific Golden Plover and Bar-tailed Godwits, were seen in good numbers. Most of the previously reported rarities had left, including the Terek Sandpiper that had been found by our earlier Nome tour, but we still managed to find a single Gray-tailed Tattler during our final morning at Safety Sound.

Dunlin breeding on Gambell

Dunlin Photo Stephan Lorenz

Pacific Golden Plover Adak

Pacific Golden Plovers Photo Stephan Lorenz

Barrow at the northernmost tip of Alaska is rightly famous for its spectacle of breeding eiders and displaying shorebirds. While vagrants are not to be expected during our short tour we still managed to find some. The most surprising vagrant was a Little Stint, which we found thirty minutes after arriving in one of the productive gravel ponds along Stevenson Rd. We had great views and good photo opportunities, but unfortunately the bird could not be found by other birders looking for it the next day. Also during our first evening we found the breeding plumaged Curlew Sandpiper out on the tundra along Gaswell Rd., a really beautiful bird. The displaying Red-necked Stint chasing Semipalmated Sandpipers was almost expected by now, but rounded out the tour nicely. Join us next year and see what we can find!

Little Stint Gambell(2)

This Little Stint was a welcome surprise in Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

Long-billed Dowitcher Barrow

Long-billed Dowitcher Barrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

Shorebird Total: Vagrant Species, Alaska Specialties, North American Species

Black Oystercatcher (Adak), Black-bellied Plover (Nome), American Golden-Plover (Nome, Barrow), Pacific Golden-Plover (Adak, St. Paul Island, Nome), Lesser Sand-Plover (St. Paul Island), Common Ringed Plover (Gambell), Semipalmated Plover (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Killdeer (Barrow), Terek Sandpiper (Gambell, Nome), Common Sandpiper (St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome), Spotted Sandpiper (Anchorage area, Nome), Gray-tailed Tattler (Nome), Wandering Tattler (St. Paul Island), Greater Yellowlegs (Anchorage area), Common Greenshank (St. Paul Island, Gambell), Lesser Yellowlegs (Anchorage area), Wood Sandpiper (St. Paul island, Nome, Gambell), Whimbrel (Anchorage area, Gambell), Hudsonian Godwit (Anchorage area), Bar-tailed Godwit (Adak, St. Paul Island, Nome), Ruddy Turnstone (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome), Black Turnstone (Nome), Red Knot (Nome), Surfbird (Nome), Ruff (Adak), Curlew Sandpiper (St. Paul Island, Barrow), Long-toed Stint (St. Paul Island), Red-necked Stint (Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Sanderling (Nome), Dunlin (St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Rock Sandpiper (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell), Baird’s Sandpiper (Barrow), Little Stint (Barrow), Least Sandpiper (Anchorage area, St. Paul Island, Nome), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Nome), Pectoral Sandpiper (Anchorage area, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Semipalmated Sandpiper (Anchorage area, Nome, Barrow), Western Sandpiper (Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Short-billed Dowitcher (Anchorage area), Long-billed Dowitcher (Anchorage area, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Wilson’s Snipe (Anchorage area, Nome, Barrow), Common Snipe (Adak, St. Paul Island), Pin-tailed Snipe (Gambell 1st record), Red-necked Phalarope (Adak, St. Paul Island, Gambell, Nome, Barrow), Red Phalarope (St. Paul, Gambell, Barrow)

Semipalmated Sandpiper Nome

Semipalmated Sandpiper in Nome Photo Stephan Lorenz

Black Oystercatcher Adak

Black Oystercatcher on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

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The Pond, Khao Yai Thailand

Khao Yai, Thailand’s second largest national park, is world-famous for its vast stretches of wild jungle, great diversity of birds, and healthy populations of large mammals. Rightly so, groups of Asian Elephants roam the valleys, hornbills swoosh above, and rare predators like Clouded Leopards still hunt here. The eerie calls of White-handed and Pileated gibbons reverberate through the tall canopy and a cacophony of birdsong emanates from dense thickets every morning. Several rivers tumble from the mountains, rushing over dark precipices in silver curtains. These dramatic waterfalls attract thousands of visitors to Khao Yai.

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One of many waterfalls in Thailand Photo Stephan Lorenz

Birders flock here for the chance to see some of Southeast Asia’s rarer birds, like pittas, broadbills, hornbills, and the near-mythical Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo. Yet, among regular sightings of gray behemoths and vast stretches of untouched rain forest thriving with exotic birds there is a relatively quiet evening occurrence that for me may be the most captivating of all of Khao Yai’s natural treasures.

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Asian Elephants are common in Khao Yai Photo Stephan Lorenz

Near one of the main intersections in the park, surrounded by buildings housing researchers and park rangers lies an unassuming lake. Known to local birders as TAT pond, it plays host to a unique spectacle at dusk nearly every day of the year. About one-and-a-half hours before sunset needletails materialize out of nowhere. The birds circle above the pond with razor-sharp wings cutting through the cooling evening air before dipping down to drink and bathe. Needletails are large swifts that on first glance can easily be mistaken for small falcons. There are three species of needletails (Genus Hirundapus) in Thailand and four species in total in the world, with the Purple Needletail being the largest. Like most swifts the birds are built for speed and maneuverability with sleek bodies and stiff wings.

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Brown-backed Needletail showing unique tail feathers Photo Claudia Cavazos

 Needletails have unique tail feathers projecting past the main rectrices and at the pond the needletails come close enough that observers can actually see this feature. In Khao Yai, the Brown-backed Needletail is the most regular visitor to the pond and depending on the season groups of varying numbers come to drink and bathe. At other times of the year they are joined by the slightly smaller Silver-backed Needletail, which can be distinguished by a whitish colored back and lack of white forehead spots. The white spots on the Brown-backed Needletails look like headlights and are obvious when the birds fly directly at the observer. On extremely rare occasions the White-throated Needletail has been seen, but beware, Silver-backed Needletails can show a clean, well-demarcated white throat as I learned. So be careful with the identification. The much smaller Silver-rumped Spinetail occurs only in southern Thailand where it is fairly common.

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TAT pond in Khao Yai with needletails circling above Photo Stephan Lorenz

By the time I arrived, around 5 pm in March a sizeable group of needletails was already circling above the pond. Within moments they started to funnel down, skimming across the water. This is one of the few places to get really good looks at these stratospheric visitors. The birds circled mostly quietly before descending in soft arches. Some just skimmed across the surface with their wide mouths opening to drink, revealing a cavernous gullet, perfect for scooping up insects midair. Others flew rapidly and dipped their bodies into the water, momentarily breaking their momentum in a splash and then fluttered rapidly to regain speed. On the still surface of the pond the needletails left circular footprints and drew crescents as droplets fell from their plumage. I sat close enough to the pond’s edge to feel a few splashes of water as the needletails wheeled right overhead.

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Brown-backed Needletails bathing Photo Stephan Lorenz

The birds hit the water audibly and shook their wings once back in the air. Groups of needletails kept arriving, circling and bathing half-dozen times before shooting out of sight to roost. In between I watched Red Junglefowl noisily scratch through the leaf litter at the pond’s edge and a vociferous gang of White-crested Laughingthrushes moved through a thicket. An Oriental Pied Hornbill swooped between large trees at the far side of the pond, providing a backdrop to the circling shadows of swifts. I sat and waited, listening to the splash and watching the semicircles of falling water. A House Swift joined, appearing minute compared to the needletails.

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Oriental Pied Hornbills are common in Khao Yai Photo Stephan Lorenz

A full moon rose. Only a few latecomers continued circling and bathing, soft shadows in the fading light. While hornbills can be scoped in a distant tree, pittas lured from the shadowy depths, and barbets identified in a fruiting tree, the needletails arrive on their own time, visitors from another stratosphere.

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Needletails and near full moon above the pond at Khao Yai Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Birding along the Mekong River in Kratie, Cambodia

The small and relaxed town of Kraitie in central Cambodia lies right alongside the massive Mekong and makes an excellent place to explore nearby birding areas. One of the main reasons to visit the area is to look for the recently described Mekong Wagtail. The species was described in 2001 and is similar to the African Pied Wagtail although not closely related. It was named in honor of Sam Veasna, a Cambodian ornithologist who had made major strides towards conserving Cambodia’s birds.

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Mekong River sunset

 

The Mekong Wagtail breeds and forages on seasonally flooded islands with a dense cover of bushes. Once the right habitat is reached, pairs are easily observed along sandbars and beaches. The best place to look for the Mekong Wagtail near Kratie is at Kampi (15 kms north of town along the river road). The well-known dolphin pools are found at Kampi and boats take visitors here to the middle of the river to look for the Irrawaddy Dolphins. Boats are available throughout the day and it costs $9 or $7 per person, depending on how many people per boat. Before heading out it would be important to clarify to the boat driver that one wants to look for birds near the small islands or else birders will bop just in the middle of the river, watching dolphins (the dolphins are easily seen).

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Mekong Wagtail

We took a morning kayaking trip with Sorya kayaking, their office is easily found along the waterfront in Kratie. The trip was excellent and we paddled for about 13 kms downstream towards the dolphin pools. The trip passed several islands and through picturesque channels. One section was touted as the flooded forest, but mainly contained a few trees growing in the water. Some trees were very impressive. Even though the habitat looked excellent I could not find any Mekong Wagtails. We stopped for a swim and snack break and I managed to see a Little Ringed Plover.

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Kayaking through the flooded forest along the Mekong

We paddled into the wind across the river to reach the pools and I finally saw some wagtails in flight. I saw one perched on a bush before it dropped onto the waterfront on the other side. We paddled around and located a pair foraging on a sandy beach, offering great views of this distinct wagtail. Afterwards we stopped on an island and watched the dolphins.

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Irrawaddy Dolphins are easily seen near Kratie Cambodia

We returned in the evening to watch more dolphins via one of the many boats and I saw another Mekong Wagtail in flight . While we waited for the sunset on the high bank above the dolphin pools we saw two dolphins cavorting near the surface and had prolonged views. One even breached, which apparently is a rare occurance. In addition to the range-restricted wagtail Kratie is also an excellent place to see the rare Asian Golden Weaver. The best place to look for the weaver lies a few kilometers north of town. I explored a side road marked on eBird and found a few woven nests and soon a male Asian Golden Weaver appeared. There were at least 3 males and many females plus other weaver species have been found in the past. The wetland areas were also very productive with migrant warblers and water birds.

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male Asian Golden Weaver near Kratie

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