Before I talk about my buzzard experiences on Saint Paul Island, here’s a seedy side-story from my night in Anchorage, prior to setting off for the island, because I know much some of you sickos love this stuff. I was checking into what I later decided was my least favourite hotel – anywhere. We’ll protect the guilty and refer to it as Dump Towers. The first thing I saw when I walked into the lobby was a confused and way-intoxicated, but otherwise beautiful young native woman – maybe 18 to 20 years old. She was sitting on the floor between the hotel bar and the elevator with a puzzled, lost look. While I was checking in, and trying to remember what sort of rental I was driving, as per the checkin form, I turned back towards the door – and the elevator, half thinking of going out to the car park to get the car details. I saw two early-twenties model citizens who I’d seen earlier lounging in the lobby, carrying the catatonic girl – one by her arms, the other by her legs, into the elevator. Dump Towers has 11 floors (I booked in part because it seemed like such a good deal with website declaring reduced prices – this night only, down from $117 to $79 dollars [yeah, right…] – and with 11 floors, it must be posh, right?). As the two guys put the girl down on the the elevator floor one of them reached to push a floor-indicating button. I yelled something like “Hey!!” loudly and panicky (kind of like when I see a good bird out at sea, but my brain can’t manage to actually convert the sighting to something intelligible, and making myself look like an idiot to fellow birders), as the guys waited for the elevator doors to close. I didn’t think fast enough to take the obvious move of intervening, but it appears to be the case that my shout contributed to the sense of urgency for another man, who I spoke to later, to quickly step into the elevator doorway and stop it from closing. The two cowards then walked deliberately and with as nonchalant a look as they could muster, through the lobby and out the front door into the night. At this stage the check-in lady seemed to me to be way too casual about the incident, calmly calling her security man via a walkie-talkie, requesting assistance at the lobby elevator. She said something about finding the girl’s dad.
That’s the story of my least favourite hotel; coincidentally, my favourite hotel anywhere is also in Anchorage, the underpriced and over-wonderful Lakeview Hotel. Every time I stay there I tell them how much I love it. But as happens too often when I don’t plan more than a day ahead, the Lakeview was booked out for the night.
All my worrying about foul weather potentially affecting my flight from Anchorage to St Paul proved to be wasted energy, as usual. I arrived on the island on time despite initially blizzardy conditions (see if you can get the video above to work), and met Met Barbara Lesterkof island birder extraordinaire, and manager of the only hotel on the island; and Ed Paulus – I believe the only source of rental vehicles on the island. Barbara is an enthusiastic nature-lover with a pattern of finding rare birds in her spare time. She found the Black Kite, a common bird in Australia, but the only-ever record for North America four or so years ago. Like most of the go-getters on the island, she juggles various professional and social roles. She provides guided tours of the island, is the drummer and a singer in an Aleut performing group, and is active in the island’s church, including choir performances.
As soon as Ed delivered the truck to the airport, Barbara and I set out to look for the resident Long-legged Buzzard – the principal but not sole reason for my visit. This spectacular Buteo hawk, first noticed in early November, initially provided quite an identification challenge and continues to provide serious ABA listers with a once-in-a-lifetime rarity.
Barbara hadn’t seen ‘Banjo’, as she called him/her (I’ll call it a him, because Barbara does), for about a week prior to my arrival despite looking. The worry was that a particularly strong and lengthy blizzard may have done a number on poor Banjo. Up until the storm Barbara saw the bird, or at least received reports from locals who had seen it, very regularly since Thanksgiving day, which was the day she first managed to get diagnostic photographs of the Asian vagrant. Of course, upon learning of the lapse in sightings since the storm, I immediately jumped to the dark side – figuring Banjo had perished, or attempted a wind-assisted return trip to god-knows-where it came from in Asia.
We didn’t see Banjo afternoon, nor did we encounter the resident sub-adult White-tailed Eagle that represented the ‘other’ reason I’d made the trip. If my trip ended up with a sighting of the eagle, even if I missed the buzzard, the effort and cost could have been justified. The eagle was a familiar bird to the locals, many of whom expressed to me their impression of its huge size; one fellow told me it stood as tall as his wife – she looked to be about a five-footer. It was first noticed two years ago and continues to be in sub-adult plumage. Barbara told me that she’d seen the eagle at late afternoon for the past four days while she was looking for Banjo. She added that each time she saw it fly over Salt Lagoon before hooking a strong right turn to disappear behind Tolstoy Point, the 100-odd loafing gulls would arise from their communal hangout on the lagoon and fly around in circles for a spell before settling back down. I staked out this area every afternoon of my stay, perched in my rental truck atop Black Diamond Hill from 4PM (adjusted for daylight savings changes that came in on the day of my arrival – causing me to nearly miss my Anchorage to St Paul flight). I managed to sit tight until 7 or 8 PM each night, before my ADHD set in, and I’d drive to other parts of the island – daylight continued until about 10pm. Because St Paul is so far west of the Alaskan mainland, it has whacky daylight hours – roughly 10am – 10pm at this time of year. Although I saw Banjo on two of those eagle stake-out afternoons, the White-tailed Eagle never showed up.
I’d been making excuses to myself and others for not getting out to St Paul Island for the two raptors from early January. But since most of the keenest American listers saw the bird back in late 2018, few mainlanders have made the trip to the island this year – which meant that confirmed reports were few and far between. Each time a couple of weeks passed without reports of the buzzard, I worried that it had gone. But following positive reports of the buzzard from Macklin Smith a few weeks ago, who made the trek for his bazillionth ABA species, and hearing from him while on the recent Hatteras ‘Great Skua’ pelagic trip that Barbara had still been seeing the buzzard regularly, I decided it was time to risk missing new rarities on the mainland and make the trip.
Although Sunday afternoon didn’t leave me with enthusiastic hope, the next morning did prove to be a winner. Right on sunrise, Barbara came crashing into the hotel (she is the manager, after all, and I was the only guest in the building). She pounded on my door – but I wasn’t in my room. I was in the dunny down the hall – at a most inopportune moment. “I’ve got the Buzzard!” “John – I’ve got the buzzard – wake up!!”. Anyway, three minutes later we were on the road racing to the hillside where she’d somehow spotted her friend Banjo, possibly where he’d spent the night. Barbara hit the brakes and pointed: “Right there!”. “Do you see it? It’s right there, near the tuft of grass!” Problem was, by my reckoning she was pointing at the road dead ahead, when it turns out she was intending to point much further to the right, where I eventually looked, and saw the bird. Barbara generously spent the entire day birding with me, but needed to get back to her many duties on subsequent days. I did bump into her from time to time – as I did bump into Banjo the buzzard – maybe three times daily, always somewhere between Salt Lagoon and the weather station, which is on the road to the airport. Twice I saw the spectacular buzzard hawking over the tops of the eastern dunes between town and the weather station, but didn’t see him nail anything. So far as I know, the only small mammal species on the island is a very small endemic rodent. I suppose he may have luck with resident Gray-crowned Rosy-finches, and Barbara told me she has seen him unsuccessfully chasing gulls. Apparently he was occasionally seen scavaging ‘unretrieved’ King Eider carcasses during the duck season late last year and maybe early this year.
Wednesday night: I saw the resident eagle just before 2pm today (partial internal high-five – it was a brief view and I didn’t manage to photograph it). It was gliding parallel to the main road, to my left, as I drove in the same direction (towards airport), just past Salt Lagoon. It presumably came from behind Tolstoy Point heading northwards but I only saw it just before it disappeared behind the next hill, towards the quarry. A frantic drive to prospective areas it may have flown to didn’t pay off. I told Barbara about the frustrating event, and she took it upon herself to search the island independently. Four hours later she found it all the way up at the big lagoon, nicely perched. She then made a big effort to find me, but by the time I got to the site, the eagle was gone. I climbed the big dune that it had been sitting on, and scanned the 360 degree horizon of dune tops. I checked the shoreline and areas as far north as Hutchison’s Hill, but couldn’t convert. Man that hurt – but there’s still tomorrow.
It’s now a day after above report – Thursday night. I’m back in Anchorage, snug in a motel room sipping on Fireball. The Lakeview is unfortunately booked out again, but I’ve avoided the Dump Tower, and life is good. Although I struck out during my four-hour search for the eagle earlier today, it was a beautiful, calm day, pretty much like Monday had been, and I really enjoyed my explorations of most corners of the island. I’ll probably be back on St Paul Island one or two more times this year, so still a chance I’ll cross paths with ‘Thunder’ for a more satisfying view and a chance at photographing it. Laura consoled me by telling me that she had three different brief fly-bys before she was able to photograph it, when on a birding tour – a year or two ago.
Quoth the Falcon “Evermore”. The very lonely grave site near the top of Hutchinson’s Hill has probably provided a lookout for many raptors over the years. I’d been keeping an eye out for this Gyrfalcon each time I drove to the north-east corner of the island, where Barbara told me to look for it, and was eventually repaid with this distant view from the road. Gunners Mate James Heath died in 1894 at the age of 27 while on patrol with the Revenue Cutter Service – the predecessor to the modern US Coast Guard, which continues to service the remote Alaskan islands.
A final yucky story, because I know you people crave them. I didn’t spend time looking for the local pair of Orcas popular with visiting birding groups in the past – I certainly had a great experience watching them hunting together for seals in Fall, 2016. Unfortunately, some pea-brained local hunter recently shot ‘Notchie’ – the female (name reflecting distinctive notch at back of dorsal fin), later explaining “because they eat our seals”. This idiot needs to be disarmed and jailed, irrespective of ethnicity. Hope nobody reports the resident raptors ‘eating our ducks’.
Oh, and another one for Glenn Pacey’s Weigel notebook. Glen, you will be pleased to learn that I pulled a double-header for the file today: First I left my computer bag (with passport, laptop, and the hard drive with the only backups of my photography for the past few weeks) on the small aircraft I flew into Anchorage on. I was deep in conversation throughout the flight, and continued to be distracted in conversation up until I had collected my bags and made off for the rental car centre. That’s when I finally realised the mistake. When I returned to the RAVN counter, luckily there was still a girl on duty. She reached someone at the hangar where the plane had been rested for the night. Pow! the bag was there, and brought to me. It was about then that I realised I’d also goofed a bit earlier in the day, when I found my St Paul Room Key in my pocket. Oops. With a population of 300, I kind of doubt that there are any locksmiths on the island. I’ll post it to Barbara.