Spring in Alaska: The Vagrant Hotspots of Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell deliver during the High Lonesome BirdTours Trips 2017

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This juvenile White-tailed Eagle was one of the highlights during our visit to St. Paul Island, but little did we know things would even get better Photo Stephan Lorenz

What a fantastic year for rarities in western Alaska and every time time we thought it couldn’t get any better, it certainly did! Each of the High Lonesome BirdTours trips this season connected with a smattering of vagrants, some truly rare and others present in unprecedented numbers. I thought we had an exceptional spring last year (see here), but this season actually topped any of the years I have spent in western Alaska. Combining the Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell tours we found an amazing 20 species of Asiatic vagrants, best of all, the rarities were seen well by our groups. What was even more amazing were the incredible moments when the numbers of rarities just kept increasing or that mega-rarity just popped up in front of us.

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Bramblings, Bramblings everywhere , we counted more than 150 in one day on Adak this year Photo Stephan Lorenz

Some of the most memorable moments included flocks of Bramblings on Adak that just built and built during our stay until reaching a grand total of 160 for a one day count, a record number in the central Aleutians. On St. Paul Island we wandered out among the dunes looking for a Wood Sandpiper and minutes later stood in awe as a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, flapping heavily in the rising winds, flew right over us, allowing for hundreds of close photos to be taken. The following day we couldn’t believe our eyes when we counted three Red-necked Stints in a melt pool, but within minutes five more flew in right in front of us (plus the Wood Sandpiper materialized)!

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Usually just one of these stunning Red-necked Stints will be a highlight, but we counted a dozen in a day this year on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

On Gambell we thought we had notched up the mega-rarity of the season when we connected with a Common “Siberian” Chiffchaff found by Paul Lehman. The bird cooperated well, offering exceptional views, but the following day our group found a male Pallas’s Bunting, which after the majority of birders on island got to see it was voted best bird of the spring.

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This Common Chiffchaff was not only rare, but also very cooperative, delighting our group with exceptional views Photo Stephan Lorenz

Let me summarize our three trips to the famous vagrant hotspots of western Alaska (Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell) and share some of the excitement and exciting finds of the season. I mainly focus on rarities here, but we of course also notched up a large number of specialties, including nearly all Bering Sea alcids, five species of loons, jaegers, Red-legged Kittiwake and more.

Things started off very well in Adak when the first evening of our visit produced a small flock of Bramblings and the winds continued flowing from the west. With high hopes we set forth during our first full day and while carefully checking a small stand of spruce trees we found an Eye-browed Thrush (later we would discover a second individual), this is a very rare vagrant to Adak. In the wetlands we discovered a pair of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, the Asiatic subspecies, and Common Snipes were displaying overhead. While we did manage to find a White Wagtail that had been sighted by others, it did take us two days of looking to finally relocate the Rustic Bunting that had been seen, but then we had exceptional views.

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This Rustic Bunting eventually showed very well for us after searching for two days and this was one of the rarer sightings among a slew of vagrants on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Adak hosted two Eye-browed Thrushes, a very good bird in the central Aleutians Photo Stephan Lorenz

The rarity hunt continued on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs and between admiring the seabird spectacle, chasing and finding vagrants, we had very little time for sleep. The first evening started off very well, when we found yet more Eye-browed Thrushes (with a day count of 8 eventually), but it was an Olive-backed Pipit that paraded around in front of us that stole the show. Oh yes, I almost forgot, Bramblings were also present in numbers.

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Olive-backed Pipit Photo Stephan Lorenz

The majority of vagrants for the season so far had been passerines, but on St. Paul Island the tone changed and shorebirds had clearly started moving. During our short three-night stay we managed to notch up goodies like Red-necked Stint (a dozen!), Lesser Sand-Plover (likely 2), Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper (2), Gray-tailed Tattler (2), and a white-morph Ruff during the final 20 minutes of birding. Now it is obvious why we had little time for meals, but those were just the shorebirds and the rare passerines continued to flood in. After a leisurely morning photographing auklets and puffins, we rushed to the north end of the island to find the Gray Wagtail that had been sighted and after some serious searching, returning after dinner even, we secured good views of this mega-rarity with less than 10 records total for St. Paul Island. The final evening check of Hutchinson’s Hill held yet another surprise in the form of a tame Hawfinch. Of course we will never forget the White-tailed Eagle right overhead and a bonus Black-headed Gull fluttering above Salt Lagoon.

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This female Hawfinch was seen well during our last evening on Hutchinson’s Hill Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Black-headed Gull Salt Lagoon St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was going to be difficult to top the experiences on Adak and St. Paul Island, but Gambell lived up to its reputation and delivered… see photo below:

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This male Pallas’s Bunting marked the first ever spring record for Gambell on one of less than 10 records in total for the ABA area Photo Stephan Lorenz

After arriving on Gambell, we didn’t have much time to relax, but headed out right away to chase a Common Greenshank and bumping into a Gray-tailed Tattler along the way. The Common Greenshank cooperated and so did Lesser Sand-Plovers, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint for another great selection of rare shorebirds.

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Gambell hosted two of the most cooperative Gray-tailed Tattlers this spring Photo Stephan Lorenz

Yet again the passerine rarities stole the show. We had a gentle introduction with yet more Bramblings, up to four Hawfinches, and an Eye-browed Thrush that remained for our entire stay. The headliners were of course the Common Chiffchaff that was seen well and the aforementioned Pallas’s Bunting that was seen exceedingly well for such a shy bird by our group. Other good finds included good numbers of trans-Beringian migrants like Buethroats, Red-throated Pipits, Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and Northern Wheatears. The White Wagtails and Common Ringed Plovers were nesting again this year, while Slaty-backed Gulls were present as usual. Join us next season at either Adak, St. Paul Island, or Gambell or better yet all to see what rarities we can turn up.

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Eastern Yellow Wagtail on Adak where very rare Photo Stephan Lorenz

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