16 November 2012

St. Paul Island, part 2: Breeding songbirds

In the last installment, I wrote about the variety of birds that breed in the cliffs of St. Paul Island, Alaska, including some very unique species.  Today I'd like to introduce you to the four songbirds that regularly breed on St. Paul. Yup, there's only four!

Among the most common of the breeding songbirds here is the Lapland Longspur.  Lapland Longspurs song sounds a bit like that of the Western Meadowlark, and can be heard from all around during the spring and early summer on the island.

A male Lapland Longspur, one of the most abundant species on the island.  (This and all photos on this post are copyright by the author, Ryan O'Donnell.) 

Another relatively common breeding species on the island is the Snow Bunting.  This species usually nests among rocks, so it is frequently found near the cliffs but also in quarries and other areas where the recent volcanic rocks crop out above the vegetation.  McKay's Buntings have been found in the breeding season on St. Paul Island in the past, but not this year and never in considerable numbers.

A male Snow Bunting guarding his territory at the edge of a boulder field.

A juvenile Snow Bunting, out of the nest for a few days or maybe weeks.

St. Paul Island is also home to an endemic subspecies of Pacific Wren (recently known as Winter Wren).  The Pribilof Pacific Wren is much more common on nearby St. George Island, and has reportedly gone extinct on St. Paul Island and recolonized from St. George (Hanna 1920).  It can be told from most of the mainland birds by its larger size and longer bill.  It is a year-round resident on the island, which is amazing considering that it eats only insects and given the winter conditions there!  Last winter was particularly harsh, and this summer we were only able to find one male on territory on the whole island.

A Pribilof Pacific Wren perched on a lichen-covered rock at the edge of a fur seal colony.

The last of the regularly breeding songbirds is also the most morphologically unique.  The Pribilof subspecies of the Gray-crowned Rosy Finch has a head pattern like the Hepburn's subspecies, but is much larger than the mainland subspecies.  The National Geographic book lists it at 8.25 inches long, only 0.25 inches smaller than a European Starling.  They are sometimes referred to as the "St. Paul House Sparrow" because they nest in the eaves of the buildings in town (as well as natural cavities in rocks, etc., around the island), and there are no real House Sparrows on the island.  

A Pribilof Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch on the makeshift platform seed feeder outside our apartment. 

Another Pribilof subspecies Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.  Both of these photos show adults, but sexes do not differ in plumage.
Up next from St. Paul Island, Alaska? Well, we'll see. . . . Probably either the last of the breeding birds (shorebirds and waterfowl), or some common migrants.

14 November 2012

Support the Wildlife Conservation Stamp

An immature Sage Thrasher at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, Utah, one of the many National Wildlife Refuges that are supported by the Duck Stamp program, and that could be supported further by a new Wildlife Conservation Stamp program.  (Ryan O'Donnell photo)
Most people know about the federal Duck Stamp program, a $15 stamp that is required to be purchased by duck hunters, and is often purchased voluntarily by birders, as a way to support the National Wildlife Refuge system.  A lot of birders buy the stamp, but a lot don't, because these funds are invariably used to show how much consumptive users contribute to wildlife conservation, neglecting the contributions of non-consumptive users.  Accordingly, the vast majority of these funds go to the production of game birds, which birders and other non-consumptive users certainly encourage, but which does not encompass the needs of all wildlife.  A petition has been drafted with the help of the American Birding Association Facebook group that would create a Wildlife Conservation Stamp, that birders, photographers, hikers, and others could voluntarily purchase to support non-game species in the NWR system.  I encourage you to read the brief description and sign the petition to the White House if you would like to see more conservation of non-game species on federal lands.  If the petition reaches 25,000 signatures in one month, the White House will officially respond to the petition.  

11 November 2012

BAS Field Trip: Antelope Island

Yesterday I led a group of seven birders on a field trip to Antelope Island for the Bridgerland Audubon Society.  This was a good turnout considering the weather: our first big snowstorm of the season had arrived the day before, and there were several inches of fresh snow on the ground and more was predicted for the rest of the morning.  Temperatures were predicted to reach highs just below freezing.  Even while meeting in the parking lot, though, our efforts were already being rewarded: a flock of about 8 EVENING GROSBEAKS flew overhead while we were waiting to depart.

The roads were not too bad, and before not too long we arrived at the Antelope Island Causeway and saw the first effects of the shifting weather on the birds: the storm had pushed hundreds of LEAST SANDPIPERS to the causeway.  By counting a small group and estimating how many groups that size we saw along the causeway, we estimated 500-700 Least Sandpipers.  According to eBird, this is the highest single checklist count of this species in Utah since a 1974 count at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. Among the Least Sandpipers we were able to pick out one WESTERN SANDPIPER, three GREATER YELLOWLEGS, and several hundred KILLDEER. We learned to identify the common GULLS of the area, and saw four species: RING-BILLED, CALIFORNIA, BONAPARTE'S, and HERRING. One GREAT HORNED OWL perched on the snow near the causeway was a highlight for the group.

A Great Horned Owl perched on the snow along the Antelope Island Causeway.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
One of the big draws of Antelope Island is the chance of spotting rare vagrant ducks, and as usual, the famous second bridge didn't disappoint.  A HARLEQUIN DUCK was first found along the causeway about three weeks ago, and continued for us.  We were also able to find three SURF SCOTERS at the same location.

A Harlequin Duck continued to oblige along the Antelope Island Causeway.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

Three Surf Scoters pose together nicely for a photo, with a Lesser Scaup in the background.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
On the island itself, we started by driving up to the visitor's center for a bathroom break, but before we could make it there we found another rare bird for this time of year, a SAGE SPARROW.  We had brief looks at this bird up on top of a shrub before it dropped back down into the vegetation.

A late Sage Sparrow that should be migrating south soon.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
At the visitor's center, the feeders gave us close looks at a DARK-EYED JUNCO, a CALIFORNIA QUAIL, and several CHUKAR.

A California Quail and a Chukar wait for their turn at the bird feeder at the Antelope Island Visitor's Center.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

As we drove down the island towards historic Garr Ranch, we saw several more raptors, including ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS and RED-TAILED HAWKS, and had a brief look at an unidentified SHRIKE.  We also added to our mammal list, with a COYOTE, many BISON, and very close looks at a herd of PRONGHORN.

A Pronghorn, part of a herd that blocked the road for a little while on our way out to Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
At Garr Ranch itself, we worked the trees around the spring and another pond to the south pretty thoroughly.  One of the first good birds here was a NORTHERN GOSHAWK right around the spring.  This species is very rare at Antelope Island - according to eBird this is only the second record for the park.  

An immature Northern Goshawk at Garr Ranch.  Mike Fish photo, used with permission.
Other raptors in the area included a RED-TAILED HAWK, an adult COOPER'S HAWK, a NORTHERN HARRIER, and this GREAT HORNED OWL, our second of the day.

Great Horned Owl at Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

The park ranger led us down to another small clump of Russian Olive trees where a very large MULE DEER buck had been hanging out.

A very large Mule Deer buck guards his harem at Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
Garr Ranch is famous as a migrant trap, a place where lost birds tend to show up when they get blown or wander off course.  We didn't find any great vagrants when we were there, but we did get some great looks at some common species, including this HERMIT THRUSH, and one out-of-season BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD.

One of two Hermit Thrushes at Garr Ranch.  This individual is pretty red, and I wonder if it might be in the eastern/northern subspecies group, rather than one of our local breeders.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

A late Brown-headed Cowbird, or should I say "Brown-headed Horsebird?," found a warm place to perch in the snow at Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
Finally, before leaving the ranch, we checked the silo for BARN OWLS and came up with one.  Or, the wingtips and tail of one, at least!

"It counts."  These weren't the best looks one could hope for at a Barn Owl, but the wingtips and tail are distinctive enough to identify the bird.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
We ended the trip at Garr Ranch, but had a few more sightings on the way back to Logan, including three or four COYOTES, a couple of PORCUPINES, and a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE.  

Join us for our next trip, on December 8th, and for the Logan Christmas Bird Count on December 15th.  See our website for details on this and all future trips, and contact Bryan Dixon to sign up for the Christmas Bird Count at bdixon@xmission.com.

Here are links to the complete eBird checklists from our trip, including a few bonus photos:

06 November 2012

Go vote!

Don't forget to exercise your civic duty today, and keep the birds in mind while you do!

04 November 2012

St. Paul Island, part 1: Cliff-nesting birds

Two birders view the nesting alcids on the cliffs of St. Paul Island, Alaska.  (This and all photos in this post are copyrighted by the author, Ryan O'Donnell.)
This summer I had the great pleasure of working as a guide on St. Paul Island, Alaska.  This 14-mile long island in the middle of the Bering Sea is a mecca for birders looking for rare birds from Asia, especially birders who keep a North American or American Birding Association Area list.  But this island also draws birders from around the world for its unique collection of regularly breeding birds.

Most of the birds that breed on the island use cliffs, like the ones shown above, for breeding sites.  Some of these are widespread species, like Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres.  Many of the smaller alcids here are unique to the Bering Sea region, like Parakeet Auklets, Least Auklets, and Crested Auklets.  Another big draw, especially for photographers, is the puffins: both Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins nest on the island.  

A Common Murre on the cliffs of St. Paul Island.  Despite the name, Common Murres are somewhat less common than Thick-billed Murres here, although they are still easily seen throughout the breeding season.

Thick-billed Murres are the more common of the two murre species breeding on St. Paul Island.  One way to distinguish them is by the bright white gape line, which is lacking in Common Murres.

Two Thick-billed Murres attend their single egg.  Murres don't build nests; they lay their single egg directly on a small little ledge on a cliff.

A pair of Parakeet Auklets on a cliff.  The clump of vegetation under the bird on the right looks like a nest, but it is not.  This species nests in cracks and crevices in the cliff wall.

Another Parakeet Auklet, this time framed by some of the Nootka Lupine that is abundant on the island.

One of the cutest birds in the world, a Least Auklet.  This species usually nests among piles of boulders at the base of cliffs or other areas, but sometimes also nests among the cracks in the cliff.

The distinctive Crested Auklet, probably the least abundant of the nesting alcids on St. Paul Island, but still easily found on almost any day in the breeding season.

A Tufted Puffin lands at the cliffs with some nesting material.  Both species of puffins on the island nest in burrows in or around the cliffs.

Another Tufted Puffin, among the most charismatic of the birds on the island.

A Horned Puffin in flight past the cliffs.  People often wonder why they are called "horned" until they get close enough to see the small black lines above the eyes are actually little fleshy horns that stick up above the head.

A pair of Horned Puffins at the entrance to their nesting burrow near the top of one of the cliffs.
 Two other unique groups of birds use the cliffs for nesting, the cormorants and the kittiwakes.  Cormorants include the relatively widespread Pelagic Cormorant, and also the Bering Sea endemic Red-faced Cormorant.  Both species have some red on their faces, so the best way to tell them apart, even at a distance, is by the pale bill and relatively thicker head and neck of the Red-faced Cormorant.

The two breeding cormorant species on St. Paul, a Red-faced Cormorant at left and a Pelagic Cormorant at right.

Red-faced Cormorant, endemic to the Bering Sea area.
Finally, we have two species of kittiwakes that nest on St. Paul.  Black-legged Kittiwakes are by far the most abundant.  They are a circumboreal species, found around the northern oceans.  Red-legged Kittiwakes, in contrast, nest in only four areas around the Bering Sea.  They are high on the wish list of many birders that visit the island.  Black-legged Kittiwakes outnumber Red-legged on St. Paul by maybe 10 or 20 to one, but Red-leggeds can still be seen easily on any day in the breeding season.

A Black-legged Kittiwake adult and nestling. 

Large flocks of Black-legged Kittiwakes can be seen around the island, particularly at many of the small freshwater lakes like this one, appropriately called "Kittiwake Lake" where the kittiwakes gather to bathe.

Two Red-legged Kittiwake nests.  Red-legged Kittiwakes generally prefer higher breeding sites among the cliffs, so on St. Paul you usually have to hike to the highest cliffs, about 400 ft. above sea level, to see their nests.

A Red-legged Kittiwake in flight.  When the red legs dangle, they are easy to identify, but Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes can still be identified in flight when their legs are tucked up into their feathers.

One of the coolest gulls in the world, in my opinion: a striking Red-legged Kittiwake.
Coming soon: a post on the other breeding birds of St. Paul Island, those that breed away from the cliffs.