Friday, December 23, 2011

Muskegon Miscellaneous

My dad and I decided to take a trip out to Muskegon to enjoy the Purple Sandpipers and bird around the wastewater. The sandpipers were easy, with up to 7 scattered around the south Pier. Photography conditions weren't the greatest, but I gave it a shot.

Besides three White-winged Scoters, not much else seen from the Pier. At the wastewater, we saw two Snowy Owls, and heard of a total of 3 being seen. Here is one.

Also, this photographer took it upon himself to approach the Snowy Owl as close as he could until the bird flew. This was in a field on the entrance road to the wastewater.
He should be hanging his head in regret, but he is probably just tired. Chasing Snowys all day can get tiresome I imagine.

We also happened upon two Rough-legged Hawks, as one is sure to do in the winter at this location.

The gulls at the landfill were unexciting, but one adult Great Black-backed Gull did show up for a second.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Comes Early in Dutch Harbor!

The boat finally tied up in Dutch Harbor after spending the night in the bay, and around 3pm I was off birding Dutch Harbor until sunset.

First, I want to extend a huge thanks to Suzi Golodoff who offered to take me birding with her. She is the go-to birder on Unalaska, and I had the privilege of spending a couple hours birding the area with her.

One of my goals was to see an Emperor Goose, and this was not a hard feat to accomplish.
These confiding geese have to be the best looking goose I've witnessed. They were not hard to spot, and in fact, we saw hundreds without trying.

While enjoying the geese, my second target bird came to me. Again, without putting in any effort at all.
(not my best picture, a little out of focus, my bad)

Now, I would have been completely fine with these two birds as they were both lifers and couldn't have been more obliging. Little did I know things were just starting to get interesting.

Suzi got a call from another local birder, Bobby, who reported that she had just seen a strange bird in with the Junco flock (another uncommon to rare bird in Dutch Harbor), and she thought it might be a Brambling. Luckily we were close, but when we arrived at the scene, all the birds were gone. We poked around for a while but couldn't locate the flock of birds.

Suzi knew I hadn't seen Tufted Duck, and they are regular in the winter in Dutch Harbor almost every winter. The Scaup flocks were just starting to shape up, but yesterday she looked and did not see any Tufted Ducks. Today, however, the story read different. In with the first Scaup flock we looked at, right off the road, this female Tufted Duck did its best to hide.
Then, out pops this beautiful male Tufted Duck.
But wait, then there were three.

This was too easy, I thought. Now it was time to go find that Junco flock and the treasure it might hold. Suzi and I went back to the original scene, still no birds. Time to make a plan. Along the river was dense cover, the kind of cover both Suzi and I thought might make a good hiding place for sparrow-like birds. As we walked the banks, I spied the group of juncos on the opposite side of the river. Suzi got on them and called out "I got it!" I also had just gotten on it, and sure enough, it was a Brambling! After some celebrating and chasing, I finally managed a half-way decent picture.

As the sun started to fade, there was one more bird I wanted to see that was in the area, Steller's Eiders. They winter in Dutch Harbor in huge numbers, and although I had seen in 2008 in Barrow, I certainly wanted to see them again. We drove a little ways and found a nice, tight flock of Steller's, settling down for the evening.

It was quite dark, and dinner time, so it was back to the boat for me. After only 2 hours, 4 life birds and 5 year birds, I had worked up quite the appetite. My plane leaves Dutch tomorrow at 1:20pm and I'll be back to Anchorage a few hours later. I'd be alright with my plane being canceled and having another day to bird Dutch Harbor, but the weather looks good for flying.

I want to thank Suzi again for taking me out with her, it was a great evening indeed! I hope I can get back to this amazing area sometime in the near future.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Whiskered Auklet and Dutch Harbor

Today was a great day to stand watch from the bridge. I got to run a great survey from east of Unimak Pass west to Dutch Harbor, right along the Aleutians. As soon as I started surveying, birds were everywhere, particularly Northern Fulmar. They were swarming like bees over the water, quite a sight to see! A few Albatross put in an appearance, with 3-4 Laysan seen. Once again, Short-tailed eludes me.

As we were nearing the western end of Unimak Pass, I spied a very large flock of dark Auklets buzzing by.
They looked small to me, smaller and less portly than the Crested Auklets, leading me to believe they are Whiskered. Too bad they were so far away.

Between the western edge of Unimak Pass and Dutch, more small dark Auklets passed by, really trying my patience.

On the outskirts of Dutch Harbor, more and more dark Auklets showed themselves. One large flock in front of the boat was also right in the sun. Finally, after wondering if I would ever get a good look at a Whiskered Auklet, a group of 3 birds sitting on the water near the boat gave me the looks I needed to be certain. Unfortunately, Whiskered Auklet in the winter isn't that pretty of a sight, but I'll take it.

Pulling into Dutch Harbor yielded some great scenery.

We anchored in Sunset Bay and will pull into the Harbor tomorrow around 2pm. This will give me around 3 hours to bird around town. Targets- Emperor Goose and Rock Sandpiper. Word has it that Tufted Ducks winter behind the Grand Aleutian hotel. I'll see if they are in!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

There They Are!

I have been wondering where all the Auklets were, turns out they are in the southern Bering Sea. Today we were significantly closer to the Aleutians, and the weather broke allowing me to do a decent survey. To my surprise and amusement, it was very birdy. The best bird was my lifer Parakeet Auklet but Least and Crested also put in appearances, with Least being most common. Common Murres were the most abundant bird of the day, and a Horned Puffin almost got ran over as we hustled by. Fork-tailed Storm Petrels fluttered by sporadically throughout the day.

I'm not 100% sure what our plan is, but we are closing in on Dutch Harbor, only about 100 miles away. We can't get into Dutch until the 17th, so my hope is that we hang around the island tomorrow, allowing me a chance to find a Whiskered Auklet, but I'm not counting on it.

Unless by some miracle a Short-tailed Albatross flies by tomorrow, it looks like that one escaped me this time around. Oh well, one day...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Home Stretch!

With only 5 days left until Dutch Harbor, I'm getting anxious to make landfall. That being said, there are still a couple birds I could still see that I haven't yet. Both Parakeet Auklet and Short-tailed Albatross have eluded me this trip, and with a couple more storms heading our way, it doesn't look good for hitting those stations by St. Paul.

Today, despite being in open water and relatively close to land, birds were few and far between. A coast guard plane decided to make a pass over the boat, not sure why they were out here...

Just when the day looked like a bust, I spied this shearwater riding alongside the boat.

Both Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters are found in Alaska, but "shouldn't" be around in winter. That being said, I saw quite a few dark shearwaters in the Gulf of Alaska during the start of the cruise, but could only identify a couple to Sooty. Looking at the Sibley Guide shows Sooty Shearwater only occuring in the Gulf, while Short-tailed can be found in all the waters of Alaska. This bird was photographed west of Nunivak. Just looking at range, Short-tailed should be the best option.

I saw thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters in the Beaufort Sea earlier this year. In all honesty, the majority of these were identified based on range. It has been shown over and over again that this species duo (Sooty/Short-tailed) serves as an identification pitfall in the field. My experience with Short-tailed in the Beaufort was that most were too far away to see head/bill proportions, and the amount of white under the wing varied greatly from individual to individual, and especially on lighting conditions.

At times, I feel like this species pair shouldn't be identified at sea except at very close range while observing "textbook" individuals in the best of conditions.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Back to St. Matthew

And then we were back in familiar territory. Today I surveyed south of St. Matthew Island for the second time this trip. This time with similar results. Quite a few Northern Fulmars were around, as usual, as were Kittiwakes and Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls. I also had another Fork-tailed Storm Petrel. I guess all these storms with 75mph winds really blow these little guys around.

In with the gull flocks that occasionally follow the boat was this gull.

Rather than go into a long, detailed description of what I think it is, I'll leave it up to you to decide. Anyone care to go to subspecies with it?

I also had a quick fly-by of three small, dark Auklets. I fired quite a few shots, but only managed some lousy images.
These are probably just juvi Crested Auklets, but how can juvi Whiskered be ruled out? Since we are usually so far from the birds, it is going to be tough to pick out a Whiskered on the way back to Dutch Harbor!

And, since I've been posting really terrible pictures lately, I'll post this Common Green Darner picture I took recently in Texas.
If nothing else, it will at least make me feel a little better about my picture-taking skills...

With a big storm heading our way (again), I hear talk of retreating to the ice for a couple days. Dutch Harbor can't come soon enough. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Birds Off the Shelf

We generally stayed in one spot today, in some very deep water off the shelf quite a ways west of St. Matthew's Island. Yesterday, while in the shallow waters off the shelf, birds were everywhere. Today, in deep water, they were scarce. That said, there were some highlights.

One of the first birds of the day was another Laysan Albatross. One of two seen throughout the day. I believe they prefer the shelf edge, and we were just too far west to see more.

4 Tufted Puffins flew by the boat, my first puffins since the beginning of the trip. Also, a Red-legged Kittiwake made a close pass, a bit out of range for the season. The most unusual bird, in my opinion, was this Common Loon that flew by. I haven't seen a loon since leaving the harbor in Seward, so what this loon was doing out in this deep water is anyones guess.
All the usual excuses regarding the poor quality of the picture. According to Sibley, Common Loons winter along the Aleutians. Maybe this one just hasn't made it there yet.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Russian Waters

Today I woke up in Russian waters. We aren't supposed to collect data in Russia, so I did a little personal surveying. The day started off with a bang when a Laysan Albatross came out of the fog. I figured if I would see any Albatross in this region, they would be Short-tailed, but I was wrong again. By the end of the day, I amassed a total of ~15 Laysan Albatross, with 2 being in American waters.

While the Albatross easily stole the show today, a few other good birds were seen. I saw 2 Cassin's Auklets in Russian waters, a bird I had not yet seen this trip. Also, 2 Least Auklets very close to the boat, in Russian waters as well (yea, I have a Russian list now!).

Back in the American waters, perhaps the most out of place bird was a Fork-tailed Storm Petrel. I've given up trusting the Sibley range maps (at least for AK waters), but the bird does appear to be quite far west (basically on the AK/Russia line).

If I was getting paid by the Fulmar, I would have really hit the jackpot today. They were everywhere, often with 8-10 in view at once. Raising binoculars to the horizon yielded scores more. We may be sticking around out here (w. of St. Matthew on the AK/Russia line) for another day, lets hope the Short-tailed Albatross put in an appearance!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unsmooth Sailing

Storm after storm continues to cause us to alter course, but the good news is that we have been in open water. The past couple days I have surveyed south of Saint Matthew's Island, and a little SE. While we were closer to the island, gulls and Fulmars really stole the show. There were constantly Kittiwakes, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls and Northern Fulmars buzzing the ship.

Today, further from the Island, there was not as much activity. However, a juvenile Pelagic Cormorant decided the boat would make a good place to rest.

I also added Pigeon Guillemot to the trip list today.

Auklets are surprisingly absent. My guess is they are congregated around the Aleutians. We will be heading south again soon, and there is a great line of stations south of St. Paul that could prove productive. We will have to wait and see.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

And Then There Were Birds

Today we were supposed to be in open water, but a nasty storm sporting up to 70knot winds and blowing snow made us retreat back into the ice.

After finally rolling out of bed and out of my room (10am- why wake up early if the sun doesn't come up until noon, right?) a coast guard girl told me of some "small dark bird" that landed on the boat. With the wicked weather, I thought for sure it would be something crazy, and to some extent it was. She led me to the bird and, even though it was still dark, it was quite obviously a Kittlitz's Murrelet! This bird was obviously out of place, but other than its interesting choice of resting place, looked healthy and alert. They wanted to catch the bird and put it in a box, but I opted to let it sit on deck and see what happened. A few hours later, after resting and regaining composure, the Murrelet flew straight into the wind and off the boat.

With the lack of birds lately, this would have been enough to keep me happy for a while, but the excitement didn't stop here. Once I made my way to the bridge I saw, battling gusty winds, were Ivory Gulls making flight look easy. I've never seen a bird fly straight into a 50knot headwind. After the snow stopped, I started surveying in less than optimal conditions. More Ivory Gulls along with Ross's, Herring (Vega), Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Black-legged Kittiwakes made for a 6 gull sp. day. I was unaware that Ross's Gulls winter in the Bering Sea, but it seems at least a number of them do. I saw at least 25 today, and that was just in a small stretch of sea.

Other birds included Thick-billed and Common Murres and Black Guillemots.

Since it was too windy to even go outside to photograph the Murrelet on board, I'll leave you with this god-aweful picture of Eiders.
Can you tell what kind of Eiders they are? I'll give you a hint, it rhymes with Bombin' Fighters