Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Back in Action

After being locked in the ice of the Chukchi Sea and Bering Straights, we are finally back into the Bering Sea, not far from Nome, Alaska. The good news is that there were actually birds seen today including a few groups of Black Guillemots and Common Eiders. The bad news is that the ice has formed all the way to the south of St. Lawrence Island, and is quickly expanding, so I may be surveying in ice for a while longer. My hope is that the ice forces the alcids to congregate in big flocks to the south of us.

I have a short list of the birds I would like to see before returning to the mainland, and here it is:
- Parakeet Aukelt, quite possible when we get back into the alcids
- Short-tailed Albatross, we have some stations between the Aleutians and St. Paul Island, so there is a possibility.
- Emperor Goose, should get this one when we disembark in Dutch Harbor
- Rock Sandpiper, I hear this is a given in Dutch Harbor
- Whiskered Auklet, will be very difficult, with my only chance being on the return to Dutch Harbor. They will have to be very close to the boat to rule out Crested Aukelt, especially in winter.

Even if I just see the Parakeet Auklet, Emperor Goose and Rock Sandpiper, I will be a happy camper.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Kittiwake

There would be nothing too unusual about a Black-legged Kittiwake on Thanksgiving if I were in, say, Michigan or Ohio. However, a Black-legged Kittiwake in the Chukchi Sea in thick ice ~100km from the nearest open water on Thanksgiving is a different story.

While feasting on thanksgiving turkey I got a page from the bridge about a bird that was flying around the spot-lights. Needless to say, I grabbed the bins and rushed up top. Not 2 minutes later the bird flew by again, skimming the edge of the boat right in the lights. An easy ID of Black-legged Kittiwake. I was also surprised it was an adult.

The green arrow on the map below is where the bird was seen:

View Larger Map
As best as I can figure from the ice maps I have access to, this is about 100km from the nearest open water, which was directly to our west. Not sure where this bird came from, but it sure was exciting to see.

I have to imagine that this is a record late date for the Chukchi Sea, and I wouldn't be surprised if it blows the previous record out of the water.

From the limited resources I have available, which is the information from Paul Lehman's records of St. Lawrence Island and surrounding areas, the latest date for Black-legged Kittiwake he reports is November 25, 1937 from Provideniya, Russia, which is just NW of Gambell. However, the Chukchi Sea area is much further North (500 miles?).

I will work on getting more information, and I know it is only a Black-legged Kittiwake, but after a week of darkness and no birds, this was exactly what I needed.

Will update when I know more.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cribs, Healy Style

Per request, I'm uploading a few photos of what the boat looks like. I've included photos of my room and the science lounge where I'm spending about 80% of my time right now. Later on in the cruise, I'll add photos of the bridge where I work and maybe the cafeteria.
My desk, all neat and clean. It is cleaning day today, otherwise it might look like a disaster.
Sleeping on the lower bunk. I prefer to sleep in my sleeping bag.
What the typical hallways look like, with rooms on the right hand side.
The science lounge, where all the fun happens!
The TV in the science lounge where we can actually watch live sports games (mostly football).
So there you have it, this is where I've been spending the majority of my time since I can't survey right now, and probably won't be able to survey for at least a week.

Also thought I would plop down a few pictures from the last few days of surveys, even though they are horrible.
I know what you are thinking, "HOLY CRAP A YETI!". Nope, its a Polar Bear, quite a ways out. Don't worry, I thought Yeti at first, too.
I just can't take a decent picture though the glass on the boat, but you should be able to tell this is an Ivory Gull.
I'm finally getting around to updating my website with butterfly pictures, but they won't be up until I'm back on land. Hopefully it keeps me occupied enough until we head south.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

1 More Month

I have one month left on this boat, when we will disembark in Dutch Harbor for a very long flight with many stopovers back to Michigan.

Hopefully the birding picks up again, which I'm sure it will once we get out of the ice and head south. Yesterday (11/16) I did not see one bird. I did spot a Polar Bear about a mile out on the ice, so that saved the day. I did not even survey today, as we are in some thicker ice and have not been moving fast enough for a survey. The sun did not fully rise today, but, had we been moving fast enough, I could have probably surveyed. Tomorrow may be a different story.

Will update again when something exciting happens...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

First Ice

Yesterday (11/14) we saw the first ice of the trip. And with ice comes more Ivory Gulls, over 30 in fact, including a nicely patterned young bird.
First ice flow in the Chukchi Sea
It was fun watching the boat crash through the ice, making it look easy.
Healy Icebreaker doing what it does best.
Previous to the ice, the 30+ knot north winds created some respectable waves. The Healy handled it like a champ.
And this wasn't even near the biggest of waves.
Not a whole lot of birds besides Ivory Gulls, the occasional Ross's Gull, and a Glaucous Gull and Murre once in a while. I will be surveying less and less as the boat approaches our destination off Barrow. The other scientists will be hitting station after station in rapid succession so we can move south. And with sunrise now at noon in Barrow, soon the sun will not even rise. Looks like I might have the week off.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The High Arctic

As we move further north, bird quantity diminishes, but not quality. Today only held a handful of birds of a few species. However, Ross's Gull may have been the most numerous bird, with 16 seen. It was pretty amazing how pink some of them were!

The first Ivory Gulls also showed up, with 4 seen for the day, and all were adults. One gleaming white bird passed close to the boat and allowed fantastic looks. Hopefully  more of these to come when we near Barrow. Daylight will be precious, as the sun will not rise starting on the 19th.

Two Black Guillemots bring the trip list to 40 species, not bad for the time of year. Hopefully I can add a few more when we pass back through the Bering Sea.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kittiwakes with Red Legs and Death

Despite the nasty, rainy weather, new birds continue to "pour" in (har har). Red-legged Kittiwakes put in a solid appearance, and while I had awesome looks, only managed horrible pictures through rain-filled dirty windows high above the water.
The proof is in the legs!
I also got mediocre looks at Crested Auklest in tight little flocks wizzing by. I hope to get better looks at them later. Ancient Murrelet was another new bird for the year, and one I haven't seen in quite some time. A group of tiny sparrow sized white and black alcids also cruised by, too far for any field marks, and I can't help but think they were Least Auklets. So far on this cruise, I've managed 4 life birds, with more surely to come soon.

I got a page (yes, I learned how to use a pager on this cruise) that there was a very cold, hungry looking bird on board, so I went to check it out. Turned out to be a dead Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, the same one that stuck around yesterday. I hear he was trying to eat a foam ear-plug yesterday, so that didn't help his cause. He will make a nice study skin at some lucky museum.

If you are keeping track of our path, you will see we have made quite a bit of progress north-bound. We should be passing the eastern part of St. Lawrence Island tomorrow, and up through the straights to Barrow. I hear the Bering Straights are a good place to pick up auklets, I just hope we go through them when there is light!

I mentioned the weather was crummy today, and it is getting worse. House-sided waves (depending on your social-status) have bombarded the boat. They have built to steady 15 footers, with some reaching 25ft. Nothing this boat can't handle, though. Should be fun trying to sleep tonight!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Storms, Albatross, and Passerines

If you have been paying attention to the ship's course, you will see we haven't moved far. We (i.e. people who are in charge) have decided to make a run for safe waters between two storms that are brewing in the Bering Sea. They are spaced apart so we should miss the worst of it, but things are bound to get ugly for a bit. I promise I'll take video of the nasty waves and swells we encounter from the bridge as they crash over the front of the boat (pre or post vomit).

Birds were slow yesterday, but marine mammals put in an appearance, the first ones of the trip thus far.  7 Dall's Porpoise and 1 Pacific White-Sided Dolphin were in attendance.

Birds today were awesome! I didn't officially survey too much since we sat on station for the better part of the day, but there were a lot of birds around and I thought it would behoove me to sit and watch anyway. Boy am I glad I did! First great bird was a Black-footed Albatross that flew by shortly after I decided not to bring my camera up to the bridge. That prompted me to grab the camera and head back up. Shortly after, I noticed a passerine flitting below. Turned out to be a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch that has stuck around all day, and even flew into the bridge. I caught him when he was banging around the glass and let him go outside. A Pine Sisken briefly joined him on deck before departing.

A splash of color to brighten up an overcast day!

Another excellent bird really got me going. I noticed a giant white and black seabird uber far away. I knew it was a Laysan Albatross by the size and white/black pattern, but it was so damn far! I made the mistake of putting the bins down and reaching for the camera and lost the bird. Frantically pacing the boat looking for any Albatross-like bird, I noticed a black and white seabird floating far ahead of the front of the boat. It finally got up, and this time I could ID it. I even managed to take a few really crummy pictures, but the features are there. Needless to say, it was frustratingly far, but I'll take it.

A veeeeeeeeery distant Laysan Albatross

It is surprising to me the number of dark Shearwaters still out in the waters. I only could ID a few as Sooty, and the rest were left as Unidentified Dark Shearwater. I also saw a couple flocks of small dark, portly alcids that HAD to be Crested Auklets, but I couldn't get any field marks on them. Size, shape, color and geographic location all point to Crested.

As I type, we are nearing Unimak Pass, but it will be too dark to see anything. Here is to hoping tomorrow produces the Auklets!

P.S. I'm working on figuring out how to post pictures from this secure network. Keep checking back.

EDIT: I figured it out. The pics must be kept small due to bandwidth restrictions, so I may add some nicer ones when I'm back on land.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Storm is Brewing

For those weather geeks out there who have been keeping up with the Alaskan weather, you've probably seen the "hurricane force wind" warning for the Bering Sea region. Luckily, no one on board wants to experience 30-40ft seas, so we are hanging out around the Aleutians until the storm passes.

I surveyed for a little over 2.5 hours today, and was rewarded with my lifer Fork-tailed Storm Petrel, actually a handful of them. The most common bird has been Northern Fulmar. I also have tallied all 3 scoters, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, and not much else. Diversity is still somewhat low, but I hope that will change when we get up near the Bering.

More soon-David

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Where I am, and Where I'll be

Many of you know I'll be doing a winter seabird/marine mammal observer position in Alaska from now until near Christmas. What you may not know is exactly where I'll be. Well, it just so happens you can follow my every move aboard the USCGC Healy with a few WWW links.

This first webpage puts up a picture every hour of where the boat is. Basically, you see what the ship is seeing at that time. It is pretty neat. As I type this, it is sitting in Seward, my destination for tomorrow.

This second link tracks where the ship is using the boat's navigation system. You can follow me every hour and know exactly where the boat is. My journey will take me from Seward, through the Bering Sea, and into the Chukchi, so it could be fun to keep up with.

I leave for Seward tomorrow. It appears I will slow, although usable internet service for the entire trip, and a lot of down time, which may result in some pretty entertaining blog posts. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Lower Rio Grande Valley amazing! One week just wasn't enough time to see everything, as new birds and butterflies were seen every day. I landed in Mcallen on the evening of October 23rd and left on October 30th. I ended the trip with 160 species of birds and 93 species of kaleidoscopically colored butterflies, with a few species of dragonflies and moths as well. I visited all the typical birding spots from South Padre to Salineno. Truth be told, I spent way more time looking at butterflies than birds; the butterfly diversity down there, especially in winter, is nothing short of spectacular. I failed in the bird photography category, as I had my macro lens on most of the time to shoot butterflies.

It was quite easy to locate the Rio Grande specialty birds like Green Jay, Kiskadee, Olive Sparrow, ect. Most of the birds can be found at various feeders.

Although I didn't see anything "rare", I was quite pleased with finding singing Audubon's Orioles at Salineno. Another spectacle to watch was this Ringed Kingfisher take a huge fish and beat it against the tree until it died, then managed to choke it down! I didn't think it would be possible.
At South Padre Island, herons and shorebirds were the name of the game. Surprisingly, it took a while to find a Reddish Egret, but I did. Then, at Laguna Atascosa they were everywhere. Also nice was this confiding Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
I wasn't quite sure how I was going to get my Common Pauraque, as I didn't want to go out alone driving back roads at night. Talking to some of the very knowledgeable local birders led me to Estero Llano Grande State Park. A Pauraque is known to roost in the same spot daily, so it was quite an easy find. I'm pretty sure I got better photos with my Iphone.
Estero also is a great spot for Green Kingfisher, and this is where I picked the only one up for the trip. I also got my life Cave Swallows there. 3 lifers in a matter of an hour sure was nice!

Mcallen holds a reliable staging spot for Green Parakeets in the vicinity of 10th street and Dove. They were not hard to find.

Here is a list of the 17 life birds I picked up on the trip:
Plain Chachalaca
White-tipped Dove
Green Kingfisher
Ringed Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Couch's Kingbird
Green Jay
Clay-colored Thrush
Long-billed Thrasher
Olive Sparrow
Altamira Oriole
Audubon's Oriole
Reddish Egret
Common Pauraque
Green Parakeet
Great Kiskadee
Cave Swallow

I spent a lot more time looking at butterflies than I did birds. My first full day, and my last full day were spent entirely at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. The first day was the annual butterfly count, where I had a crash course in 65 species of butterflies at the gardens alone! Jeff Glassberg, along with all the other sharp butterfly observers really helped get me on my feet, especially with the skippers. I stopped by the gardens every day except when I went to South Padre, and every day held a different host of species. 93 species for the trip was quite exciting. Below are some pictures you may enjoy.
Nothing says "tropical" quite like the Guava Skipper. This one photographed at Estero Llano
My first unusual butterfly of the trip came quite quickly in the form of a Coyote Cloudywing. This one at the NBC. 
Gray Crackers were hard to come by, but this one flushed from a bait log, blowing its cover. Photographed at the NBC. 
Wouldn't want to leave out the showy Mexican Bluewing, quite common in the shaded woods in the LRGV. This one at the NBC.
Another rare species, the Mercurial Skipper, put on quite a show at the NBC for our count. These are strays from Mexico. 
Hairstreaks were hard to come by due to the drought, but this Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak displayed quite nicely.
One of the best butterflies of the trip, in my opinion, was this Pale-spotted Leafwing, a new species in NA even for Glassberg. This guy showed up for only ~5 minutes on count day and was never seen again.
I was happy to see this White Angled-Sulphur on count day, one I wasn't sure I would see. This was the only one seen the entire trip. 
When they are around, the Red-bordered Pixie is hard to miss! The NBC is a great place to see this species, active mostly in the morning and evening.
It would be crazy not to mention the longtails. 5 species were seen. The White-striped Longtail was a treat.
Brown Longtail is a little more drab, but still exciting. The similar Teleus Longtail is mentioned to be common in the Kaufman guide, but all the experienced butterfly people say it is actually extremely rare, with only a handful of legitimate records. I did not see any this trip, which isn't surprising.
Here is a complete list of the butterflies seen on the trip, in no particular order:

Red-bordered Pixie
Phaon Crescent
Pearl Crescent
Vesta Crescent
Gulf Fritillary
Mexican Fritillary
Varigated Fritillary
Ceraunus Blue
Cassius Blue
Western Pygmy Blue
Rekirt's Blue
Mallow Scrub Hairstreak
Gray Hairstreak
Marius Hairstreak
American Snout
Clouded Skipper
Fiery Skipper
Brown Longtail
Dorante's Longtail
Long-tailed Skipper
White-Striped Longtail
Tawny Emperor
Empress Lilea
Little Yellow
Mimosa Yellow
Southern Skipperling
Red Admiral
Lyside Sulphur
Southern Dogface
Pipevine Swallowtail
Bordered Patch
Tropical Checkered Skipper
Coyote Cloudywing
Carolina Satyr
Large Orange Sulphur
White Peacock
Southern Broken Dash
Mexican Bluewing
Laviana White Skipper
Common Buckeye
White Checkered Skipper
Common Sootywing
Fatal Metalmark
Turk's Cap Skipper
Julia Skipper
Hammock Skipper
Gray Cracker
Zebra Heliconia
Giant Swallowtail
Tropical Leafwing
American Lady
Painted Lady
Euphala Skipper
Murcurial Skipper
Cloudless Sulphur
Great Southern White
Pale-Spotted Leafwing
Common Mellana
White-Angled Sulphur
Hermit Skipper
Gold Spotted Aguna
Statira Sulphur
Celias Roadside Skipper
Sickle-winged Skipper
Red-bordered Metalmark
Pale-rayed Skipper
Funereal Duskywing
Dainty Sulphur
Many-banded Daggerwing
Purple-washed Skipper
Walker's Metalmark
Dusky-blue Groundstreak
Boisduval's Yellow
Mimosa Skipper
Rounded Metalmark
Clytie Ministreak
Zilpa Longtail
Fawn-spotted Skipper
Mazan's Scallopwing
Ocola Skipper
Mournful Duskywing
Guava Skipper
Silver-banded Hairstreak
Violet-banded Skipper
Band-celled Sister
White-patched Skipper
Sleepy Orange
Tailed Orange

I have many more pictures of the butterflies, but just not enough time to edit them all. I leave for Alaska on Friday. I will be doing a 6 week winter seabird observing position aboard the USCGC Healy Icebreaker. The route takes us from Seward, through Unimak Pass, through the Bearing Sea, into the Chukchi Sea, back through the Bearing Sea, with disembarkment in Dutch Harbor. It is uncertain what I will see out there, given the time of year and the minimal daylight hours, but it is sure to be exciting!