Shanghai Birds in Alaska, Part 2: St. Paul Island

terek sandpiper
Terek Sandpiper, St. Paul Island, Alaska. This is the species of which U.S. birder Chris Feeney writes, ‘A shorebird flew in right past us. We saw the upturned bill and in unison yelled, “Terek Sandpiper!” Another super ABA bird for me.’ In his second post for shanghaibirding.com about birding Alaska, Feeney describes thrilling moments with Asian vagrants during his month-long stay on the remote island. (Chris Feeney)

by Chris Feeney
for shanghaibirding.com

Feeney
Chris Feeney

In the fall of 2012 I spent more than a month on St. Paul Island, Alaska. My main goal was to see Eurasian strays. These species are well-known to Shanghai birders, and seeing them on U.S. soil is a real treat. St. Paul is in the Pribilof Islands north of the Aleutians in the Bering Sea. It is not a large island, having an area of 43 square miles (111 sq. km). It has a nice variety of habitats, from sedge marshes, volcanic rock areas, tidal lagoons, and a quarry to large areas of wild celery. The rock cliffs hold large numbers of breeding alcids and kittiwakes.

Several good roads connect some of the best birding areas on the island. In a typical birding day one can cover most of the island, unless, of course, great rarities are found! Normally I do not take tours. However, the setup at St. Paul is such that only tour personnel can go to some of the best birding areas. I therefore signed up for the tour. For most of my 29 days on the island, I was the only person on the tour.

I got to St. Paul in the afternoon of August 19th. I was met by Doug Gotchfeld, one of the St. Paul Tours guides. He told me that a Pin-tailed Snipe had not been seen in several days and had probably moved on. However, two Little Stint and a few Red-necked Stint were around. The stints were being seen on a creek mudflat near Antone Lake. On the way there we passed the Salt Lagoon, and Doug showed me my first ABA Red-necked Stint. We arrived at the Little Stint spot not too long after and were rewarded with great views of both Little Stint, a life bird for me. We worked our way back to the Salt Lagoon, where Doug showed me a Grey-tailed Tattler, another ABA bird for me. I was very happy at that point, but the excitement had just started. Doug and I went to the Town Marsh, where in 2010 I had first seen Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper. I was hoping to see both again. Doug and I walked into the marsh and were scanning when a shorebird flew in right past us. We saw the upturned bill and in unison yelled, “Terek Sandpiper!” Another super ABA bird for me. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper were in the Town Marsh as well.

The next day I had Ryan O’Donnell as my guide. We were in the northern part of the island when a very large raptor flew over. It was the White-tailed Eagle that had been seen for several months on the island. Another life bird.

On August 24th we found a Common Snipe in the Polavina Wetlands, for me another great ABA bird. Also on the 24th, Doug Gotchfeld and one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service individuals relocated the Pin-tailed Snipe on the far western side of the island. It was about a two-mile hike up to the area where the bird had been seen. On the 26th, Ryan O’Donnell, Craig Caldwell from Ohio, and I took the hike up to look for the snipe. We got to the general area and were walking around when the bird flushed up and flew across the hillside very close to us. It was calling as it went by. It flew off into a large marshy area. I took two more trips up to that area, but we never saw the Pin-tailed Snipe again. Several days later we saw a Lesser Sand Plover. The Little Stint, Red-necked Stint, and Grey-tailed Tattler were still seen regularly. A Ruff appeared at the Town Marsh.

September brought in some great Eurasian birds. On the 3rd I got my ABA Brambling. On the 6th I was in the quarry with Scott Schutte, who was in charge of the tours at that time. We had seen some Snow Bunting and not much else. We saw a flycatcher on the rocks. It turned out to be Dark-sided Flycatcher. That same evening birder Steve Heinl got in touch with us. They had seen a small brown bird in the celery patch near the Webster House in the northeast corner of the island. We went out to the site but could not relocate the bird. Steve thought it may have been a Fox Sparrow.

The next day, the 7th of September, Scott Schutte told me that he, Doug, a friend Andy Bankert, who had just come off a research vessel, and I would be going back to Webster House to look for the little brown bird. Scott had a feeling it was not a sparrow. My knees were bothering me after walking the celery patches, so I told Scott that I would wait on the dike while they walked the area, about 100 yards from me. Moments later my radio crackled: “Good bird, get out here.” I worked my way out to them and was told that in the celery was a Rufous-tailed Robin. We worked the area but did not have enough folks to flush the bird. Doug went back and got another group. At that point we had 14 people to cover the area. We spread out and started moving through the area. That did it! The Rufous-tailed Robin flushed up and flew across giving all of us excellent looks. We put it up one more time and Doug got great photos to document the find. It was the second island record.

Toward the end of my time on St. Paul I was with Doug Gotchfeld again, and we located another Common Snipe in the Tonki Wetlands. The following day, September 11th, Doug asked me if I wouldn’t mind going back to the Tonki Wetlands as a birder in another group needed Common Snipe for a life bird. We gathered at the Tonki Wetlands and started to move through the marsh. A small snipe jumped up right between another birder and me. It was not a Common Snipe, but a Jack Snipe! My second one on St. Paul Island. That was a life bird for several people.

I left St. Paul on September 16th. Unfortunately for me, St. Paul Tours raised their prices significantly, so I have not returned to St. Paul since 2012. The island is still one of the best places to see Eurasian flycatchers and also Long-toed Stint, so I may return at some point to look for birds I still need for my ABA list.

MAP & PHOTOS

alaska-st-paul
Map of Alaska showing location of St. Paul Island (57.186924, -170.257459), explored for 29 days in August and September 2012 by American birder Chris Feeney. Inset shows positions of Alaska and Shanghai, both in red. (Ian Macky/Craig Brelsford)
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
In western Alaska, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata is noted regularly in autumn and rarely in spring. (Chris Feeney)
eagle
White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla is closely related to America’s Bald Eagle H. leucocephalus. (Chris Feeney)
wood sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola has bred on the outer Aleutians. It is an uncommon vagrant to the Pribilofs and a common passage migrant in Shanghai. (Chris Feeney)
Little Stint
Little Stint Calidris minuta is a very rare vagrant to Shanghai as well as to Alaska. (Chris Feeney)
Grey-tailed Tattler
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes is a regular vagrant to Alaska and an uncommon passage migrant in Shanghai. (Chris Feeney)
Dark-sided Flycatcher
The place in North America where Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica is most recorded is St. Paul Island. (Chris Feeney)
seals
St. Paul is the home of a large number of Northern Fur Seal. (Chris Feeney)
st paul
Town Marsh with village of St. Paul in background. (Chris Feeney)

RELATED POSTS

This post is part of a series on East Asian birds in Alaska, Siberia, and the Russian Far East. Others:

Alaska

Breeding Arctic Warbler Plus Vagrant Yellow-browed Warbler and Siberian Accentor in Alaska

Russia

Birds of the Yamal Peninsula, Northwest Siberia

Siberian Grouse and Blakiston’s Fish-Owl at Sikhote-Alin in the Russian Far East

Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

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Pursuing Shanghai Birds in Alaska

alaska
Map of Alaska showing sites birded by Chris Feeney on his first expedition. In pursuit of Eurasian vagrants, Feeney ticked on U.S. soil species well-known to Shanghai birders, among them Lesser Sand Plover, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, and Yellow-browed Warbler. He also noted species that breed in Alaska and are commonly noted on passage in Shanghai, among them Arctic Warbler and Bluethroat. The experience thrilled Feeney and caused him to begin making regular trips to Alaska. (Ian Macky/Craig Brelsford)

by Chris Feeney
for shanghaibirding.com

Feeney
Chris Feeney

I have been a birdwatcher almost my entire life. I was a career U.S. Army officer, spending 26 years in the military. I had a good bird list before I went into the Army. Once I retired from the military and a follow-on job, I started to seriously work on my life list. I birded places like Arizona, Florida, Texas, and California. I built my ABA list (American Birding Association, then covering the contiguous United States, Canada, and Alaska) to a respectable number—the high 600’s.

I knew that if I wanted to get to more than 700 birds, I would have to go to Alaska. I also knew that if I birded Alaska, I would have an increased chance to observe Eurasian strays.

This post is about my first trip in the fall of 2010. Areas that I will focus on are Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, St. Paul Island, and Nome on the mainland. In later posts, I will mention those three plus Adak in the Aleutian Islands.

The first Alaskan trip came about this way: At Cape May, New Jersey I met Mike Smith, a birder who lived in Anchorage, Alaska. He told me that if I made a trip to Alaska then I could base out of his house. He also said he would join me for part of the trip.

I started out in Nome in mid-August. Around Nome you can have everything from high tundra to boreal forest. Nome has three roads that go out about 70 miles (110 km). One goes east to Council, one goes west to Teller, and the other goes north into the wilds. The northern road is famous for having a small population of Bristle-thighed Curlew. They had already departed by the time I got to Nome. Several birds that are primarily Eurasian have breeding areas that carry over into Alaska. Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat, and Northern Wheatear nest in Alaska and then traverse the Bering Sea back to Russia and their wintering grounds.

I saw my first Arctic Warbler on the Nome to Teller road. On that same road I started to see groups of 4 to 6 Northern Wheatear. The road is 73 miles (118 km) long, and I saw wheatears over the entire distance. These birds were headed for the coast and their flight to Russia. I had hit the main fall migration push of these birds. I estimated observing several thousand birds, as I was never out of sight of them the entire way. I heard a Bluethroat on the Nome to Teller road, but it was skulking in thick underbrush, and I never saw it. My only other Eurasian birds around Nome were 2 juvenile Ruff that were on Safety Sound off the Nome to Council road.

My next stop was Gambell. Gambell is a small native village on the northwest side of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Birders have access to about 10 square miles (26 sq. km) of the island, paying a fee to bird that area. Birders can access the entire island, but a much larger fee is required, and there is a requirement to have a local guide. All-terrain vehicles are a necessity, as the pea gravel makes moving quickly between sites impossible. ATVs can be rented from the locals. The only place to stay is the Gambell lodge—basic, but for birders it is good.

In mid-August Arctic Warbler were passing through, as were a few Northern Wheatear. I saw my first Bluethroat there as well. I was able to locate 2 Lesser Sand Plover. Little did I realize that Gambell would be a recurring spot in future Alaska visits and would add a significant number of Eurasian birds to my list.

Following Gambell I linked up with Mike Smith. We visited Homer and took the ferry to Dutch Harbor before flying to St. Paul Island in mid-September. A tour group was leaving on the same airplane that we flew in on. The tour leader told us that they had found Jack Snipe in one of the nearby marshes. Our tour guide took us out to the marsh and we found the Jack Snipe, a very unexpected bird. We then went to the Town Marsh, where Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had been seen. Adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper take a normal route through Asia to their wintering grounds. However, a number of juvenile birds cross into Alaska before heading south. We found several in the Town Marsh. Another bonus bird for me in the marsh was Wood Sandpiper. Wood Sandpiper are fairly regular vagrants in Alaska, but in most places they are not seen every year.

That night a bad storm hit St. Paul. Winds were very heavy. The next day broke clear and with no winds. We started to land-bird. One of the better spots is Zapadni Ravine. It is a deep ravine with steep sides. Mike Smith took the top of the ravine on the right, I took the high side on the left, and our guide walked through the ravine on the bottom. Halfway through the ravine a small bird flushed and landed on a rock about 20 yards from me. I could hardly believe it; I was looking at a Siberian Accentor. This bird possibly had arrived on the winds from the night before, or it could have already been on the island. Regardless, it was a great life bird.

Later in the day we were at the northeastern part of the island at a place called Hutchinson Hill. In the past some very good birds had been found there, including Red-flanked Bluetail and Rufous-tailed Robin. We were approaching a small patch of wild celery when our guide said there was an Orange-crowned Warbler working in the celery. He then said that another bird was in the celery. I could not get on the birds. Then Mike Smith said, “Do you have kinglets here?” The guide had not answered when I got on the second bird. It was a Yellow-browed Warbler, the rarest Eurasian bird on the trip.

Mike and I went to Barrow in early October to see Ross’s Gull. They are fairly common if you can time your visit to their main feeding push. They cross the Bering Strait and feed in the Arctic Ocean before heading to their wintering grounds. We saw several thousand on our first two days at Barrow. Numbers dropped significantly after that.

So ended my first Alaskan bird trip. I was hooked on finding Eurasian strays after this trip, and even before I left I was planning my return.

PHOTOS

wheaters
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe on Nome to Teller Road, mid-August. The Northern Wheatear that breed in Alaska undertake one of the longest migrations of any songbird—more than 15,000 km (9,000 mi.) to the wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. (Chris Feeney)
gambell
Town of Gambell, population 700, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait. A remnant of the Bering Sea Land Bridge, the island is closer to Asia than mainland Alaska—Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula is only 58 km (36 mi.) away. (Chris Feeney)
St. Paul Island
Wild celery habitat near Hutchinson Hill, St. Paul Island. Here Feeney found Yellow-browed Warbler, a rare vagrant to Alaska. Elsewhere on St. Paul, Feeney ticked rare vagrants Siberian Accentor and Jack Snipe and more regularly noted migrants Wood Sandpiper and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. (Chris Feeney)
bluethroat habitat
Bluethroat habitat on Nome to Teller Road. Bluethroat breed in northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory in Canada. (Chris Feeney)

FURTHER READING

This post is part of a series on East Asian birds in Alaska, Siberia, and the Russian Far East. Others:

Alaska

Terek Sandpiper, Rufous-tailed Robin, and Dark-sided Flycatcher on St. Paul Island, Alaska

Russia

Birds of the Yamal Peninsula, Northwest Siberia

Siberian Grouse and Blakiston’s Fish-Owl at Sikhote-Alin in the Russian Far East

Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

Be notified every time we post. Send an
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