Fall Alaska 4: Back to St Paul

I went back to St Paul Island Alaska from 29 September to 3 October, as part of the Field Guides Fall Alaskan birding tour. There were seven birders in our group, with St Paul veteran (and increasingly a veteran of all over the birding world) Doug Gochfeld. As is the St Paul birding way, the methodology was to travel in our van, usually with one of the TDX resident birding guides/freaks Sulli Gibson and Alex Harper, all across the island, working over the seemingly likeliest of accessible hidy-holes for wayward Asian migratory birds. Also as usual, I tried to hit the hills and dales with perhaps more coverage and intensity than my fellow birding friends, and therefore – also as per usual, I’m now taking a day, maybe two, to recuperate physically in my favourite Alaskan hotel – the Lakefront. We did ‘OK’, in that we saw many beautiful birds, and enjoyed great experiences in relatively calm weather. I added two species to my year-list: Rustic Bunting, and Hawfinch – the later being a ‘lifer’. That bumps my total for the year to 798 – and I’m becoming more hopeful that a record score is possible (hope that doesn’t jinx it). My ‘continental’ score is 762 (birds that I first reported in Hawaii, but have subsequently documented on mainland include Least Tern, Wandering Tattler, Pacific Golden Plover, Brown Booby, Leach’s Storm-petrel, Black-footed Albatross, Hawaiian Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, and Eurasian Skylark). As best I can figure, I’ve done considerably better one the Alaskan Islands than I did in 2016, and can but hope that November/December is better for rarities than the ‘first winter’ of the year – January-March proved to be (compared to 2016). This is getting interesting! I’ve also calculated that I’ve added 28 species to my ABA continental life list so far this year, which now stands at 812 – identical to my Australian life list, as best as I can figure.

While at St Paul I enjoyed bumping into fellow big year types Gaylee and Richard Dean, who are still as passionate and competent about their birding as ever. Maybe more so. Their year lists are spectacular, even though they chose early in the year to resist chasing vagrant birds across the countryside that wouldn’t be new to their life-lists. These two seem to love birding as much as each other (and that is clearly a lot!), and seem to have the world by the tail.


One of two Asian bird species I managed to add to my year-list during my third trip to St Paul Island for the year – Rustic Bunting.


Some of the birders in the process of ‘nailing’ a Rustic Bunting: Gaylee and Richard Dean, Carol to the left. No prize for guessing which birder is Aaron Lang – always about a head above the mere mortals.


The bird that makes my life hard on the islands: Lapland Longspur. Although the numbers of resident longspurs on the island had diminished dramatically since my St Paul visit just a week earlier, they still caused me too many double-takes when in flight at any distance.


A migrant Eurasian Skylark, one of many potential rarities, (including Rustic Buntings) during Fall migration that could be overlooked as longspurs without sufficient diligence. At least for me.


Guys that have no problems separating the wheat (vagrant buntings and the like) from the chaff (resident longspurs) at any distance under any circumstances – Doug Gochfeld and Sulli Gibson.


Field Guides birding group. At least the portion of the group that were behaved enough to stick together in a group.


Two bull Orcas taking a break from terrorising Northern Fur Seals.


North Point, Marunich – one of the must-visit sites birders cycle through on a typical birding day on St Paul – ever-hopeful of encountering newly arrived vagrant rarities.


Sulli, Alex and I clambered back and forth along the rooftop of ‘upper cut quarry canyon’ trying to get the goods on a Hawfinch that insisted on keeping its distance. I eventually managed to briefly see bird down in the quarry canyon, when it was encountered for about the fifth time, this time by Sulli, while it remained perched almost long enough for me to switch from binoculars to camera, then flew back and forth across the canyon, before disappearing once again.


The quarry area is a really scenic part of the island, and historically perhaps the best place to find rarities.


Punching through the Putchkie (celery) above Antone Lake.


A rare red-sky sunset on St Paul Island.