St. Paul Island Fall: It Could Happen!

As the days are blending into one and routine has somewhat set in it is difficult to remember when and what was seen where and how and it’s hard to remember whether it is Monday or Friday. For the last few days our slogan on the island has been” “It could happen” and one day it almost did. While fall migration, especially in terms of Asian rarities, continued to be fairly slow that doesn’t mean that the last two weeks didn’t have some highlights, including an unexpected first record for St. Paul Island. One day things were actually happening, but let’s go through this sequentially.

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Red-necked Grebe hanging out with King Eiders and Harlequin Ducks Photo Stephan Lorenz

During the past two weeks King Eiders have settled around the island with a pair regularly in the harbor, shorebirds have thinned out considerably with small flocks of Rock Sandpipers remaining and the odd Western Sandpiper or Long-billed Dowitcher. Fortunately the Jack Snipe was found again and all birders arriving later have been able to see it. Loons and grebes are on the move with several species foraging in the sheltered bays.

I started the middle of the month with a few new birds for me on the island, mainly regularly occurring fall migrants from the Alaskan mainland, including a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and this here American Robin.

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American Robin is a regular fall bird on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The next day we located large numbers of sparrows from the Alaskan mainland, likely the fallout from the strong eastern winds/storms during the past days. Golden-crowned Sparrows were by far the most numerous, but White-crowned and Fox Sparrows were also present. Fox Sparrows in fact hung on during the entire two weeks with individuals popping up regularly in various hotspots.

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Fox Sparrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

The following day saw much of the same, but on September 18th we settled in for a serious attempt at seawatching since strong southerly winds had been blowing for a day or two. While the hoped for Mottled Petrel never showed itself, we did spot a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross, more than consolation I would argue. The bird was flying south past southwest point and was actually not that far out, allowing all of us to see a white breast and belly on the otherwise all dark bird. This was only the third record from land in recent decades on St. Paul Island. A Gyrfalcon also showed up and has since been terrorizing the Snow Buntings and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches on the island. The bird makes almost daily appearances even hunting passerines right behind our house where I had put out some seed. A second individual may have been present a few days ago.

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juvenile Gyrfalcon Photo Stephan Lorenz

After the success with the albatross we settled in for another bout of seawatching, but besides White-winged Scoters and some Yellow-billed Loons the seas were quiet except the regular Short-tailed Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars.

Finally the winds shifted and blew from the west for several days, hopes and expectations soared. “It could happen”! Three more days without any major change, except for a notable influx of Red-throated Pipits and a possible Eurasian Skylark. The 24th started off unremarkable, except that we saw the possible skylark in the same spot again and it was a definite Eurasian Skylark, the tail pattern and white trailing edge of the wing clearly visible as it flushed twice, never to be seen again.

Before lunch we trudged through the quarry, which appeared empty, but as we walked up the last bit I saw a small bird flush to the right. I got my bins on it for a second as it perched and flushed again, yelled that I had something different and at the same time realized that it had been a Red-flanked Bluetail, finally a stray passerine and a good one at that. We scrambled into position and most who needed the bird got to see it perched high in the most convoluted section of the quarry. I swung around and briefly flushed the bird into view again.

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Red-flanked Bluetail in the quarry Photo Stephan Lorenz

Satisfied with our views we retraced our steps to the van and I climbed to the higher area of the quarry. Climbing back down I saw a bird fly into a depression the looked different, sure enough we got onto three Bramblings that foraged along the boulders (a number that has now grown to at least 7 Bramblings). Now our hopes soared, clearly the west winds had finally brought some good birds our way.

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Bramblings Photo Stephan Lorenz

We decided to have a quick lunch so we could spend as much time out in the field hoping to find more birds and more birds is what we found… just not the ones we were hoping for! Northeast was the next logical place to look and we headed straight for Hutch Hill and the Webster House area. A dedicated sweep through the celery netted us another/same Red-flanked Bluetail and this one was very cooperative with everybody in the group getting excellent views. A Dark-eyed Junco also flushed and was a bit of an omen for things to come. What else was hiding on the island? We would soon find out! Driving back from Hutch Hill I saw a thrush fly in and perch briefly on a celery. Distant photos confirmed a Swainson’s Thrush, the rarest of the three Catharus thrushes on St. Paul Island and it was a great bird, but not what we were looking for.

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Swainson’s Thrush Photo Stephan Lorenz

The junco and thrush seemed to precipitate a start of birds all from the “wrong side” of the Bering Sea. Heading back to some hotspots along the southwest road we found a Blackpoll Warbler flycatching in the Blubber Dump area (5th Pribilof record) and a thorough sweep on Zapadni Ravine produced a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wilson’s Warbler, and very rare Warbling Vireo (6th Pribilof record). Apparently birds had moved in general and we were getting birds from both sides of the Bering Sea, not what we had expected in the morning. The evening was capped off with another classic American bird, an American Robin in the quarry, ending a somewhat confusing day.

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Warbling Vireo Photo Stephan Lorenz

The next four days slowed down considerably with a few birds hanging on, others never seen again, and only a few interesting sightings. The Gyrfalcon continued so far and a long-staying Double-crested Cormorant was a daily feature in the harbor. The Wilderness Birding Group managed to find a Cedar Waxwing in the quarry, marking another 1st Pribilof record this fall and an incredible find, but the bird has not been seen again. Fortunately the Red-flanked Bluetail stayed and was seen again by the group.

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Double-crested Cormorant Photo Stephan Lorenz

And until next time I’ll leave you with a scenery shot… Red-faced Cormorant in its element.

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St. Paul Island northern coast Photo Stephan Lorenz

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