An Alaskan Spring to remember

Excerpt from a book in the works “ABA Birds on a Shoestring”

This was my second season in western Alaska, returning to Buldir Island, that magical nubbin of 3 by 5 miles, bracing its volcanic cliffs against the rough Bering Sea. Lying just sixty miles east of Attu, Buldir’s has a bird list that could easily rival its larger more famous neighbor and the smaller size of the island made it a little bit easier to find birds. This far out, about 1,000 miles from the Alaskan mainland, and pretty much halfway to Asia, the majority of migrants, especially passerines, where coming from southeast Asia or points beyond, heading for breeding grounds in northeast Russia. The first two or three days were relatively quiet. Seabirds had arrived en masse and the three resident songbirds were singing vigorously from dried parsnip stalks, a few Song Sparrows had already started nesting, if it was even possible to call these large, nearly towhee-sized, short-winged, and dark plumaged birds Song Sparrow. The Aleutian subspecies has appropriately been named maximus.

Song Sparrow (maximus) Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

After working hard to get the field camp in order and ready for data collection, I found myself with one or two hours to spare one evening and figured I would take a look to see whether anything else was around. I walked up Camp Valley, an expanse of flats bisected by two small streams. The brown vegetation was still low, but it was work walking through the tussock. I worked my way along one of the streams to check whether anything was seeking shelter in the ravine. Suddenly two small birds bounced towards me and landed on a desiccated stalk. I put my bins up and found two colorful green finches, well the identification was pretty straightforward, first two then three Oriental Green Finches bounced along. I followed the birds downstream as they raced from stalk to stalk. When two birds sat up finally I noticed a curlew twenty feet beyond, changing the focus on my binoculars, it turned from fuzzy to a long-billed Far Eastern Curlew. I rushed back to camp to alert the others and four of us were able to see the curlew for a few minutes before it flew towards North Bight. It kept going north, probably to distant points in Russia. The finches had disappeared.

Far Eastern Curlew Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

After the first two Asian species west winds continued to bring several others over the next two weeks. The regular Wood Sandpipers and Common Snipes appeared, Slaty-backed Gulls, and Gray-tailed Tattler were also expected, but a single Smew on Bean Goose Pond was interesting.

Gray-tailed Tattler Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

Incredibly birds got even better during the first week of June as slight west winds continued. I headed up to Bean Goose Pond, South Marsh, and the nearby ravines every evening to see whether anything else had arrived. Buldir lacks extensive marshes, except for a few ponds and swamps, which attract the majority of waterfowl and shorebirds. Narrow ravines and steep slopes offer shelter for songbirds. I trudged up and down the trails, checked the beaches, and circled the wetlands, but sometimes birds just come to you. Taking out some kitchen scraps I noticed a Song Sparrow hop out of view, I pished to get a better look, and apparently the sparrows weren’t the only birds taking advantage of the food source. A Hawfinch popped up out of nowhere, sat in front of me for a moment and flew off strongly. I managed to catch up while it perched on one of our tents and photographed it feeding on the ground in one of the nearby storm-petrel colonies.

Hawfinch Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

With mild weather, the birding was surprisingly easy and we continued covering the island as much as possible. After the promising Hawfinch, Eric Andersen and I teamed up for the evening to check the ravine of Bean Goose Pond. By the time we had worked our way up the hill the light was fading. The usual low clouds and heavy mist enveloped us in gray and I barely spotted the small plain bird that flushed in front of us, the glimpse revealed a flycatcher. Eric got on it and we managed close views of a Dark-sided Flycatcher when it moved up the slope.

Dark-sided Flycatcher Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

Things couldn’t get much better. but they did. I slept hard every night, exhausted from struggling through dense vegetation and up and down the steep slopes, in addition to extensive field work with auklets . The long ravine beyond South Marsh was especially difficult as it wound higher and higher, with many side tracks worth exploring. My friend Sampath and I decided to explore the area equipped with handheld radios that promptly didn’t work. I wandered ahead for ten minutes and when Sampath didn’t follow I figured I better take a look. When I rounded a bend he was waving vigorously. I did the strange stiff walk all birders do when everybody else is clearly looking at the rarity and one tries to walk fast, but too fast lest the bird flies, clenching all muscles as if trying to keep the bird in place. When I stood next to him he uttered a few curses about the radios and promptly pointed to a pair of Common Rosefinches foraging distantly along a steep slope. The birds flew across the ravine for quick, but better looks. Great find and reinvigorated we continued climbing into the narrow valley.

Higher up vegetation grew spare on the hills, but a clear stream and wind protection led to lush growth among large boulders. A small songbird flushed far ahead of us, following the stream out of sight. We advanced carefully and were able to spot it a quiet a distance, but even far away the red throat and brown back was distinctive, a beautiful male Taiga Flycatcher, second later a female joined the first bird. Exploring Glissade Valley that evening I discovered two more females and Eric Andersen arrived from a different part of the island, announcing that he had found a Taiga Flycatcher along the beach, adding up to five birds in total. An incredible number anywhere in Alaska.

Siberian Rubythroat Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

The flood of Asian migrants didn’t stop, Bean Geese flew over South Marsh, a Rustic Bunting briefly appeared in one of the ravines, and a Black-headed Gull stayed among the kittiwakes along the beach. There were days when rarities just appeared without even looking and it paid to have a pair of binoculars slung around one’s neck at all times. Carefully picking my way along the beach with rocks rolling beneath my feet I flushed a Red-throated Pipit from a patch of washed up kelp. It took shelter in a larger pile of rotting kelp and continued foraging for insects. Four days later walking along the trail towards the research blind I flushed another pipit. It perched on a grayed drift log for a moment and preened, unusually confiding for a Pechora Pipit, but resuming its role as a notorious skulker it disappeared quickly. the same day we found an Olive-backed Pipit on another part of the island.

Red-throated Pipit Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

June 8th started inauspicious. Sampath and I walked down toward North Bight Beach after a long day in the field. He spotted the Black-headed Gull and pointed it out to me. I scanned half a mile down the beach and said I saw it, but it didn’t look like a Black-headed Gull, he said no its right here in front of us. There it was, but what was sitting way down along the shore. We started moving quickly, taking periodic  looks at a medium-sized gull as we  got closer, it changed from just a Red-legged Kittiwake, to it must be a Mew Gull, to finally a Black-tailed Gull sitting among the larger Glaucous-winged Gull. I took a few photos and I rushed back to camp to get Eric, who manged to catch the bird just as it flew out over open water.

Black-tailed Gull Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

With light fading quickly I headed back to camp and Sampath decided to walk the western beach. Twenty minutes later, while I sat on the porch drinking some hot chocolate, he ran up the trail, saying he had just found a Terek Sandpiper nearby. I managed to find the bird with barely enough light, one of the shorebirds I had really hoped to catch up with in Alaska. I took a few photos in the failing light and then settled back into the cabin, a great end to a great day, when the door flew open and Eric rushed inside, yelling for the scope. There was a warbler out there, somewhere in Camp Valley, what kind he didn’t know, he just knew that this was truly rare. We walked quickly along the trail cutting through the valley to where Cornelius was waiting. Hailing from Germany, with lots of European birding experience, Cornelius had picked up the song of a warbler right around dusk. We stood still and listened, the clouds hung low, the wind had died down, and there it was, a monotone trill coming from the grasses, but by now we needed a spotlight to see this bird. Reading through the literature back in the cabin the identification became pretty simple, song sounds like a fishing reel, the Lanceolated Warbler, North America’s fourth occurrence. No doubt we were going to be up early the next day.

Terek Sandpiper Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

Even before the sun sluggishly permeated the fog and clouds, the bird was singing in the same location. Once there was enough light we quickly had it in the scope. Over the coming days we found a total of four birds, probably more, within the vicinity of Camp Valley. The birds remained and sang on days when the wind quieted for nearly two weeks before disappearing.

Lanceolated Warbler Buldir Island, Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Amber on August 20, 2011 at 12:22 am

    I loved seeing these, and reading your documentary. I especially appreciate the pics are not touched up and are taken in each birds natural setting. They are great, you are lucky to be able to travel to a pristine setting and see the incredibly diverse species present in Alaska. Not many people will ever get the chance to go where you went, therefore, it is even more special. Again, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reply

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