Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Midland Barrow's Goldeneye

I slept in 'till noon today (don't judge me) and woke to an email about a Barrow's Goldeneye found by the Midland area Christmas Bird Count on Sanford Lake. With nothing better to do, I figured I would go scope it out. There was no information on where to look for the bird other than "on Sanford Lake" so I figured access was probably an issue. And it was...

So, I started at the south end of the lake at Sanford Lake Park. Access was easy, but there were only a few Goldeneye, and no Barrow's. I moved north along the west side of the lake and could see a huge smattering a mostly Common Mergansers with Goldeneye mixed in, but they were super far and they looked closer to the east side. I moved there and could find no accessible place to scope the flock.

I rang the doorbell of a sleeping homeowner and asked about access. She let me scope from her backyard, but I still couldn't see enough of the flock and they were still far. So I moved north and found another homeowner who had the flock close to his yard. He graciously let me scope from his backyard and was very curious about the bird. Long story short, I finally found the beast floating with a raft of Common Goldeneye. It was FAR but obviously a Barrow's Goldeneye, and obviously not a hybrid.

I managed a few poor photographs of the bird with my iPhone through my scope. Given the distance, I was surprised I got anything.

I can't suggest going to look for this bird as access is obviously an issue. I got very lucky that the homeowners were willing to let me scope from their yard and I got the feeling they weren't hip on the idea of having a lot of birders in their yard. If you do go, the flock was west of the "Meridian High School" seen on google maps.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Late December Cape May Warbler

You usually don't see many "good" feeder birds while living in the heart of overpopulated (in my opinion) Lansing, Michigan. However, my dad has been playing host to a confused and hearty Cape May Warbler since December 4th, 2012. Luckily for the warbler, the weather has been very mild... some might even say warm for this time of year.

The first big test for this warbler came last night/today as a few inches of blowing snow fell. And yet, the bird persists. These birds can be tough. A quick search of eBird shows a few historical November/December records among the Great Lakes region.

The Cape May Warbler enjoys feeding under the suet feeder on scraps dropped by the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, House Sparrows and Starlings. I helped it out today by breaking up a few extra pieces of suet and scattering them on the ground.

The latest Cape May I could find for Michigan was a record at a private feeder until December 20th. Does anyone know of any other late December or January records for Michigan? Ohio has a January record via eBird, but that is all I can find.

Hopefully it sticks until the new year. That sure would be a nice way to start!

Monday, December 17, 2012

P-Town, Poutien and Panzarotties

During the time period of December 3-10, I found myself racing toward the east coast with two good friends; Garrett MacDonald and Lucas Foerster. Our goal was simple, enjoy the crazy vagrants showing up and have fun birding. Both goals were realized in epic fashion.

I picked Garrett up from the Detroit airport at 3:30pm and we raced over to Lucas' house in London, ON, arriving just after dark. We quickly left his house and were racing east. First stop: Hyannis for the recently identified Little Egret. Driving through the night, we arrived at sunrise, even before the egrets. After a short wait, they arrived; two Great Egrets with a smaller one following. They landed quite close and allowed great study. And just like that, the first major target was acquired.

After enjoying the Egret, we back-tracked to Barnstable where a Northern Lapwing has been spending time in a corn stubble field. We spotted the bird from the car and had amazing scope views of this stunning shorebird. Quite possibly my favorite bird of the trip.

We ended our day at Duxbury Beach. Once we were walking toward the beach, we all saw 9 Cave Swallows heading south. I still haven't seen this bird in Michigan, and we were all shocked at our luck.

On the 5th, we chased a Barnacle Goose in the Bronx, NY. We didn't plan too well and hit some major traffic. We eventually did make it to the bird and had great looks at this smartly marked goose.

We didn't have much time to do any other birding, but we did try once again for the Black-headed Gull in Hyannis, which we missed again.

Tired of chasing birds, we spend the 6th in the Gloucester/Rockport area. We started at Andrew's Point where we saw Great Cormorants, Razorbills, Northern Gannets and Purple Sandpipers (our only PUSA of the trip!). We worked our way down the coast, checking some peninsulas and just doing some general birding, which felt good. We ended at Manomet Point where we had better looks at Razorbills and Great Cormorants and plenty of Bonaparte's Gulls, but not much else.

On the 7th we decided it would be best to do more seawatching. Dovekie was a major target and we had yet to see one. Provincetown (or P-town) was the obvious choice and we got there just before sunrise. After setting up, Lucas yelled out about some small alcids heading north. We all got on them and sure enough, Dovekie! Four of them! We had another 3-4 scattered throughout the morning. We also saw our first and only Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre and Pomarine Jaeger of the trip. In the afternoon, we stomped around the Fort Hill marsh for the second time. Still, we were unable to identify any ammodramus sparrows besides a couple Seaside Sparrows. The others just would not cooperate, but a few were clearly Nelson's or Saltmarsh. So, we went back to Hyannis to look for the Black-headed Gull that we kept missing. Finally, it showed well and we had fantastic looks at the bird with two Bonies.

After refueling our bodies with Subway, we again trounced through Fort Hill marsh, this time with a little more success. We flushed a Clapper Rail that was a lifer for Lucas. It had been a while since I had actually SEEN one of these rails. And in December, no less!

We also had better looks at Seaside Sparrow.

And, finally, we got great looks at a non-Seaside ammodramus that, after some debate, turned out to be a Nelson's Sparrow. We never would get a look at a Saltmarsh Sparrow.

We slept in on the morning of the 8th with intentions of having a relaxing morning and working our way up to Niagara Falls for some gulling on the 9th. But, as fate would have it, Mike Lester texted Garrett and I that a Pink-footed Goose had been re-found in New Jersey. This kick-started us into gear, and after driving for 5 1/2 hours, we made it to the pond and the sight of some dis-heartened birders. The goose wasn't here! We exchanged numbers and drove around every pond and corn field we could find, sorting through thousands of geese with no luck. With only an hour or two of light left we returned to the pond where thousands of geese were pouring in. Still, the birders on the scene told us the Pink-footed wasn't among them. Finally, after scanning the flock a few times, I found the bird! It was hiding quite well in the dense flock, but it was there. Everyone enjoyed prolonged scope views of this great bird from Greenland.

Now it was time to make the 8 hour trek to Niagara Falls. The drive would have seemed a lot longer, but coming off of a win, it wasn't too bad. The gull show on the morning of the 9th didn't disappoint either. In with the thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls we found one adult Little Gull. Below the falls we had great looks at multiples of Thayer's and Iceland Gulls. Above the falls, we found an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. We ended in Brantford hoping to get lucky with a Gray Partridge, but it wasn't to be had. They are nearly impossible, except in the winter when there is snow. I guess I'll have to head over once the snow comes, which could be a while.

To celebrate this successful week of birding, we stayed with Lucas in London and enjoyed some delicious Canadian food. We stuffed our faces with Poutien. When we got hungry again, we tried the Panzarotties which are similar to a calzone, but infinitely better.

On the 10th I dropped Garrett off at the Detroit airport and made it back to Lansing. I'm already looking forward to another birding adventure with these guys!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Spontaneous UP Trip

After securing a seasonal, part-time job here in Lansing, MI starting next week, I figured now was as good of a time as any to jolt to the UP and clean up some missing year birds and enjoy some chilly November camping before that is no longer possible. I planned to stay two nights, figuring a few birds would give me difficulty, but instead everything was insanely cooperative... how often does that happen!?

I started the trip looking for Sharp-tailed Grouse on Hantz Road. They had been reported to eBird from there not too long ago, and I found one eating catkins from a tree along the road, just south of W 23 Mile Road.

I took my good luck north to Dafter Dump to look for Iceland and Thayer's Gulls. Iceland was easy, with two juvenile, one 2nd year and one adult present. I also saw an intermediate type bird I desperately wanted to call a Thayer's, but I just couldn't do it. The bird was just a little too light, with little secondary bar and no tail band to mention. I stopped by again today, hoping for a clear-cut Thayer's (are there such things?) to no avail. However, more Iceland Gulls were present, including 3-4 juveniles and the same 2nd year and adult birds. Also on these dump-runs were 2 Glaucous Gulls, a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.

After the first dump-run, I cruised to the Pike Lake area via County Roads 500 and 414. The roads were recently graded and easily drive-able in my little Honda Civic. This made access to the burn easy, and finding a Black-backed Woodpecker was only a matter of time.

I then walked the Clark Lake trail near Tahquamenon, famous for the nearly-impossible-to-miss Spruce Grouse. Apparently my luck ran out as I did indeed miss them, but I picked up a Ruffed Grouse and White-winged Crossbill, also year birds, as a consolation prize.

I bolted to Whitefish Point where Pine Grosbeaks infested the feeders, #599 for the year.

I then camped along Vermillion Road, behind the concrete slab. In the morning, after pushing my alarm back an extra 45 minutes, the birds started calling. While trying to talk myself out of my warm sleeping bag and into the crisp UP air, I heard the unmistakable sound of grouse wings beat by my tent. The taunt, and knowing I probably JUST missed a Spruce Grouse got me out to start packing my tent. Half-way through, I looked up just in time to see a male Spruce Grouse flying right at me! He saw me, veered and flew back into the pines. It appeared he was going to land, and after searching for quite some time, I stumbled upon him staring me down from a Jack Pine. #600 came to me!

After I finished packing away my tent, I spent some time scoping gulls in the WPBO Harbor. I was surprised to find a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull, but even more surprised by what happened next. I heard a very familiar call that immediately got me excited. A high-pitched "pit" or "fit" that sounded suspiciously, and exactly like what an Audubon's warbler sounds like. If you have the Sibley guide on your iPhone, it sounds like the song labeled "Audubon's chwit calls_UT", but I don't really hear "chwit", but I'm also pretty horrible at describing calls. Anyway, the bird flew to two pines near the edge of the water. The bird called a lot in the 10-15 seconds I was able to view it. I was able to see the yellow throat, and rump, although from a bit of a distance. I went to get my camera, and BAM, the bird disappeared. Due to the brevity of the sighting, no photos, and my limited view of the bird, I won't be writing this one up. If I was out west, I wouldn't have thought twice. I have extensive experience with Audubon's from my time working out west. If you are in the area, check it out. Here is a picture from Wyoming that matches fairly well with what I saw today

I spent some time at the feeders, photographing finches and waiting for a Bohemian Waxwing to drop in. The previously reported Hoary Redpoll was quite entertaining, allowing me to walk right up and photograph it. I also found another Hoary, although this one was not as obvious. Here is the obvious one.

I expected the Bohemian Waxwings to be flying over. I didn't have to wait long before I heard one, but this one was close! Turns out it was hungry and joined the Pine Grosbeaks below the feeders. No complaints here!

After a very successful whirlwind year-bird birding roundup, I'm back in Lansing. Now to track down a few birds around here. Shame I still haven't seen a Pheasant this year...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Arctic? Tern

My dad and I visited Muskegon County today and found an interesting Sterna tern at Pere Marquette Park. I'm under the impression this looks like a juvenile Arctic Tern. That said, I've only seen one juvenile Arctic Tern.

Note: Small, thin bill, white secondaries, very limited dark outer webs to outer retrix. Deeply forked tail.

Note: Very white underwing, extremely limited black on outer retrix.

Note: Very small, thin bill and rounded head.

Lighting was very tough but with back-lighting, the transparent secondaries and inner primaries were evident, although I couldn't get this in a picture. To my eye, everything looks good for an Arctic Tern and I'm struggling to find any pro-Common Tern features. Comments appreciated.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sparrows and Warblers

The Robin seems to have taken off (or died), but new birds continue to arrive here in Gambell. The storm that produced some nice SW/SE winds is over and dropped some more goodies, mostly from the mainland. However, another Brambling joined the group now totaling 3 birds in the near boneyard.

In addition, a Wilson's Warbler was discovered in old town on 10/5, a species that somewhat regularly strays to Gambell. It continued on 10/6.

Also on 10/5 was a red Fox Sparrow in the near boneyard near the runway. On 10/6, a Dark-eyed Junco appeared in old town, the first for the year in Gambell. A juvenile White-crowned Sparrow was seen among the bones in old town.

The winds have now switched to the north and it looks like they will remain there for the rest of my stay. There still may be a few goodies kicking around and I'll continue to work the boneyards at least once a day. I leave on the morning of 10/12 and get to Michigan on 10/13.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Robin Continues

I was able to re-find the now Siberian Blue Robin today, although it required my almost stepping on it. Once flushed it is extremely cooperative and easy to follow, but the initial flushing is tough!

Anyway, I paid close attention to the tail shivering. The bird essentially NEVER quit shivering the tail (and sometimes wings) the entire time I watched it. When hiding in the wormwood, when out in the open on the dirt, after being flushed and landing, the tail was constantly "shivering". I'm not sure how much shivering Rufous-tailed Robin does, but there is no way it could top what the bird was doing today.

Here is another picture from today. Tough to get good photos when the lighting is this bad.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Robin...

People a lot more knowledgeable about Rufous-tailed/Siberian Blue Robin are questioning the identification of the Gambell Robin. I'm posting additional pictures for reference, and some of my field notes as well:

- I never saw a BRIGHT red tail on the many times the bird flushed. It appeared brown, but when sitting the rump had some rufous, the same color as the rufous on the wings.

- The bird frequently fluttered its tail/wings. This was especially apparent when I went back the second time to take more photos. When the bird skulked away, it hunched over and ducked its head while running. It reminded me of the ammodramus sparrows when running away.

- I was shocked at how small this bird appeared from the Catharus thrushes I am used to seeing.

- The bird was very active, moving quickly and making short flights. It did not seem particularly shy and often perched in the open and on rims of holes or bones, as apparent in my photos.

Below are some of the photos I took of the bird. I have more if needed. All taken 10/2/2012. The bird was not present 10/3.

I'd love to hear comments on this bird from those with experience. They can be sent to

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Well, something happened that turned the "migration" switch on and now Gambell is flush with birds. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but finding 3 new arrivals yesterday (9/28) was quite exciting. First, the far boneyard held a flighty Orange-crowned Warbler, and then a much more confiding Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Then, in the near boneyeard, the second Gambell record and 6th Alaska record of Mourning Warbler looked quite out of place.

A drastic change in weather is predicted to hit in the next few days and last for quite a while. Winds will switch to the South and Southeast, and get strong for a few days into next week. Not the best weather for those vagrants from Asia, but it will be interesting to see what shows up from the mainland. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wind Storm

After having perfect weather for a vagrant to show up from Asia (light west wind and precipitation), nothing was produced. We checked every area multiple times for anything new and came up empty. Paul and I are the only birders left, and he leaves on October 1st. It is too bad I am here for the worst fall for vagrants on record, but I can't complain too much as I've seen 10 lifers and am being paid to be here. And I have a feeling this won't be my last time birding Gambell.

The lull in birds has given me time to focus a bit more on counting loons and photography. I'm pleased with this picture of a Rock Sandpiper, basically the only shorebirds left on the island, although a few Pac. Golden Plovers and Dunlin might still be around.

The wind has really, really picked up and is only going to get stronger. Right now gusts of 35mph from the NE makes birding the boneyards nearly impossible and the seawatch is the only thing worth doing if you can stand the cold. Winds of 45mph are predicted before finally breaking sometime Friday. With a drastic wind shift predicted for this weekend and into next week, I just might find something before I leave (if the predictions hold).

Keep checking back, one bird could change an extremely slow fall into a great success. It only takes one...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Still Turnover

We had a slight break in the weather as the north winds subsided and gave way to very light, variable winds on Thursday night and Friday. During this time two new birds showed up, another White-crowned Sparrow and a Yellow Warbler (I didn't see either). We worked the boneyards very hard yesterday and although calm winds can be good for Asian vagrants, we found none. Sunday night the winds may shift to a light WNW, and Monday may be calm as well. This could be good for some new birds if it holds true.

Work wise, the loons have been very slow. I'm here to conduct Yellow-billed Loon surveys. A few years ago, a native hunter claimed to have shot 100 Yellow-billed Loons on one of the subsistence harvest surveys, so the Alaska FWS is surveying to see if this number of YBLO could actually be harvested (it can't). I have only seen 6 or 7 Yellow-billed Loons since my arrival, although they are supposed to pick up later in the season. Pacific Loons are trickling by, but not nearly the number they are supposed to be, and I've yet to see an Arctic.

I'll update again soon, and hopefully I'll have something more interesting to report!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dull Days

As you can probably surmise from the lack of posts, there ain't much happening. The most exciting thing in a while has been the now 4 Gyrfalcons frequenting the mountain in Gambell, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting auklets. The Gyrs are mostly the white flavor, my personal favorite, but also a gray.

Not much going on at the seawatch yet either. Loons are still very slow. Most of the landbirds are gone, and weather is still predicting north winds from now until forever. Maybe this cold, snowy weather will bring in the McKay's Buntings sooner? We will see...

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Pechora

Yesterday was a beautiful day in Gambell, and those are hard to come by. Even though we didn't have west winds, the winds were very light and somewhat variable, which can be just as good as west. Any time the wind dies is good.

The excitement started when Gary Rosenberg and I found 2 "flava" Horned Larks, along with a light faced bird that may be an "arcticola", or some sort of young, weird looking "flava". I'm not familiar with these subspecies, and Paul has never had a light-faced bird in the fall here. Interesting to say the least.

A "flava" Horned Lark

The light faced Horned Lark.

Things got even more exciting when Gary flushed an interesting, silent Pipit that took short flights and was extremely skulky. With diligent birders stalking the bird, we got good looks and pictures, clearly showing a Pechora Pipit. This species is proving to be annual on Gambell in small numbers.

Keeping with the "asian bird" theme, here is a picture of a nice adult Slaty-backed Gull found earlier in the week. They seem to be quiet sporadic this year, although I've seen a handful since my arrival.

Winds continue from the NE for the near future, and they may become quite strong. Seabirds should be picking up (eiders, loons) so I may do more seawatching. As always, more later.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Playing With Puffins

...and Auklets. I ventured to the seabird colony on the North end of the mountain and climbed around a bit. With no rare birds from Asia around, this helped past the time, and it was a beautiful night!

Crested Auklets were the most numerous. At this time of year, they have lost most of their crest.

Horned Puffins were flying by at close range.

Horned Puffins are also numerous.

On my way back, this Parakeet Auklet was posed quite nicely, and allowed very close approach! He wasn't bothered by me at all.

I won't be posting much until something exciting happens, which could be a while. North or Northeast winds projected until at least the 16th (a long away to be predicting winds... but still). Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Another Rare Shorebird

The last few days have been dominated by strong North or Northeast winds, the winds of which bad dreams are made of. There continues to be a little passerine turnover, but all are from the Alaskan mainland (except maybe some Red-throated Pipits). We have seen an influx of White-crowned Sparrows and some had a juvenile Chipping Sparrow. Arctic Warblers, Northern Wheatears, Bluethroats and Red-throated Pipits continue to please the crowds of tours groups that have all finally arrived.

Even in these winds, when you have this many birders together in a small area, good birds are going to be found. September 3 produced my lifer Lesser Sand-Plover along the lakeshore of Troutman Lake. Great looks were had. I re-found the bird in the same place today (September 4) and managed a mediocre picture. Also today a Gray-tailed Tattler was found, along with a few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers.

September 2 and 3 produced one Yellow-billed Loon each, the bird I will soon be surveying for the Alaska Fish and Wildlife. They become more numerous later in the season, along with other loons (*cough Arctic cough*).

There are now three tour groups here including Wings, High Lonesome and Wilderness. Winds are supposed to change to the West on Thursday, but possibly only for a short time. After that we will be hammered with North winds indefinitely. Looks like this might be the year of no Asian passerine vagrants… more later.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rare Shorebirds

After my somewhat quiet start, Gambell has been producing. On August 29th we took a trip down to the bottom of Troutman Lake in a thick fog. Shorebirds were grounded and abundant. This is where I got my first solid looks at Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and they were quite numerous.
We continued around the lake, checking the good plover habitat along the way. Plenty of Pacific Golden-Plovers were around, but we couldn’t find the rarer Lesser Sand-Plover (a bird seemingly annual now on Gambell, and one of my high priority species). We made a quick stop to check some landbird habitat, and this is where I flushed a white-rumped Tringa. It called while flying, and landed in another pond where we chased it down. It turned out to be the third fall record of Wood Sandpiper for Gambell.
We made it back around the lake and started birding the far boneyard. Almost immediately Paul called out “COMMON SANDPIPER!”. This is unheard of in the fall, and represents the first fall record for Gambell. We spent quite a bit of time chasing it around to get better looks/pictures to confirm it wasn’t a Spotted. It is still present today.
August 30th brought north winds and rain. North winds are not what you want for Asian vagrants, but the rain seemed to drop a number of “trans-Beringian” migrants from the mainland. There were good numbers of Northern Wheatear, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler and both Wagtail for all to enjoy. I was able to finally get an identifiable picture of a Bluethroat, an extremely hard bird to approach.
In the afternoon, huge numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters were streaming by. The picture below is one frame from the massive passage that lasted over 6 hours. You do the math.
August 31st is more of the same. Stronger north winds did not bring many new passerines. Arctic Warblers, Wheatears and Bluethroats are still around in smaller number than before. Paul’s tour had a “flava” Horned Lark below Troutman Lake, so even with poor winds birds from Asia are coming over. All of September is fair game for finding megas from Asia, and more tours are coming in the next few days, so this place will be covered in birders. Someone should turn something up! More soon…