The 25 most difficult breeding birds in the ABA

This is the first entry of a series of 25 posts describing the toughest birds to track down in the ABA area. I have limited myself to species that regularly nest in the ABA area, excluding sporadic breeders. In other words the species are present every year, but very difficult to see for varying reasons. Either their ranges encompass only remote and difficult to access areas (think Spectacled Eider), the birds are just hard to spot (think Boreal Owl), or for shoestring birders they fall out of budget (think Ross’s Gull). These are just subjective articles, and what is considered difficult by me maybe easy to others. For example Hook-billed Kite, a difficult, but by no means impossible bird, appears to be the toughest bird in North America for me personally. I have looked for it nearly a dozen times without real success, but that is another story. Hopefully I can post better views one of these days.

I had the fortune of encountering some of these species, but I am still hoping to see the majority of them. When I first started to think about difficult ABA birds, I tried to limit myself to ten species, but soon realized that many more fall into the category of difficult. I am sure birders will agree on some, but individual lists would vary greatly. There is a strong bias for Alaska (look at examples above) and I have tried to correct that somewhat by considering more species in the lower 48 states, but it will become apparent soon that the far-flung corners of the largest state are home to some of the hardest ABA birds, so let’s start with the first one.

Due to research and monitoring work for US Fish and Wildlife in, you guessed it, in Alaska, I have been lucky enough to see this bird. In fact I have seen thousands of them, but for birders not willing or unable to rough it for up to four months in remote islands, there are easier places to see one. And one is all you need to see to appreciate this adorned gnome of wild sea, the Whiskered Auklet.

Among a group of unique birds, the alcids, the Whiskered Auklet stands out as the most enigmatic. While the majority of auklets, puffins, murres and murrelets can be found in points further south at least sporadically, the Whiskered Auklet clings to the Bering Sea year-round. During the summer it seeks the remotest islands for nesting and at other times of the year gathers in flocks in the surging waters of passes in the Aleutian Islands, where rip currents carry food to the surface. Around accessible breeding sites many alcids are easy to see and often allow close approach. Murres incubate eggs in plain sight on steep cliffs, puffins stand in front of their earthen burrows as if to show off, and many auklets gather in huge flocks that circle above colonies. The Whiskered Auklet follows in the steps of the few alcids that visit their breeding colonies at night. The breeding colony can be a dangerous place during the day, with gulls, Peregrine Falcons, and other predators constantly on the lookout for an easy meal. Whiskered Auklets visit their nesting crevices in complete darkness, calling to their mates as they arrive from feeding grounds. During the day a Whiskered Auklet colony lies fairly quiet, but at night their calls ring out from the beach and among the rocky boulders.

Whiskered Auklet habitat, western Alaska Photo Stephan Lorenz

Being one of the smallest auklets, the plain black and dark gray body plumage is offset by a long forward curving crest and three ornamental plumes around the face. Like most alcids the species only raises one chick per season, which takes bit longer than other species. The parents feed mainly on zooplankton, which they catch during wing-powered dives. The species is largely resident around the Aleutian Islands and does not appear to migrate or disperse even during winter. Birds may visit their remote breeding colonies year-round. For decades the Whiskered Auklet was considered very rare, but known population numbers have risen, due to a combination of increased survey and conservation effort.

Whiskered Auklet, Photo Stephan Lorenz

The question now, where can birders track down this incredible bird? Traditionally, travel on the ferry from the Alaskan mainland (Homer) to Dutch Harbor offered a good chance of seeing birds forage out at sea, especially between Unalaksa and Akutan. It is also possible to join or charter a boat headed for the Baby Islands from Dutch Harbor, where Whiskered Auklets can be seen in large numbers throughout the summer. Just hope for a calm day or bring lots of Dramamine. In recent years the trip to Adak Island, in the central Aleutians, has become popular, where short boat trips offer great chances to see Whiskered Auklets in nearby passes. I even talked to a visiting birder in Adak, who had scoped some from shore. Any cruise in the Aleutian Island will offer good chances of seeing the species too. There have been one or two records in the Pribilof Islands, where visiting birders may have a miniscule chance of encountering the species.

Crested Auklets, Photo Stephan Lorenz

I was able to assist with Whiskered Auklet studies during two summers spent in the western Aleutians. I monitored nesting success and was able to get close looks at these small seabirds as they stoically incubated their eggs in rock cracks and shallow burrows. While there were large numbers present, around 30,000, I managed to see one during the day only a handful of times. These birds truly qualify as one of the toughest and most exciting birds to see in North America.


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