Cape Hatteras pelagic double-header – 31 May, 1 June

The idea of squeezing in a couple of Brian and Kate’s Springtime Gulf Stream ‘must do’ days on the water between Alaskan adventures was a necessity, and despite the difficulties of getting from Anchorage to the outer banks and back again in four days flat was worth it. My only previous Atlantic pelagic experience was similarly on the Stormy Petrel II – but early in the year, in crazy cold conditions. On that occasion the 2.5 hour drive from Norfolk Va to my accommodation at Hatteras took four hours due to dangerous snow conditions. This time it similarly took four hours due to very dangerous heavy rain conditions – with extensive patches of flooded road during the last 50 miles or so. I had several almost disastrous episodes when solid road gave way to foot-deep water that caused me to nearly plane off the road. The weather forecast for my two days wasn’t pretty, but the conditions that eventuated were not too bad. In fact, both days brought terrific birds – and apart from what felt like occasional narrow escapes from descent into sea-sickness, I had a terrific time seeing a whole bunch of seabird species that I’ve never seen before. Of the two rare petrels that had popped up every second day or so prior to my dates, we saw only one – Fea’s Petrel, missing the Herald/Trinidade that was seen the day before. But no complaints, saw my second White-tailed Tropicbird for the year, and new year-birds (and lifers for ABA) included South-polar Skua, Black-capped Petrels (stunning!), four terrific Shearwaters (Great, Cory’s (two ssp), Manx and Audubon’s), Wilson’s and Band-rumped Storm-petrels. Have attached some pix. Was good to have big year birder Laura Keene on board on second day. She’d driven all the way from Ohio with her remarkably supportive husband – though he did draw the line re getting on the boat. Laura stayed another day – will be interesting to see what extra species she managed to see.
I’m now on flight from Dallas to Anchorage ahead of a week in Gambell and Nome. 
Photos that follow: The good ship Stormy Petrel II cruises back to Port Hatteras, White-tailed Tropicbird, Fea’s Petrel, Cory’s Shearwater, Black-capped Petrel, Great Shearwater, South Polar Skua hassles Great Shearwater, Wilson’s Storm-petrels dancing on the water.

Update 29 May – Surviving Attu

Now picking up the ‘pen' on third of four flight legs to get me from Adak Island Alaska to Norfolk Virginia (an airport I sure have become familiar with) for two days so of Gulf Stream pelagic birding off of Port Hatteras, North Carolina, before a retracing those flights to Anchorage, then onwards to Nome and Gambell Island. 

When I signed up for the 16 day springtime ‘Attu’ trip about a year ago, I thought it was a no-brainer. Of course I’d get on the Puk-uk and make the three day sail to legendary Attu – everything I’d read from big year birding in the good ole days described it as the must do feature of an ABA big year. But I recognized the gamble involved - I'd be giving away a big chunk of precious Springtime birding action in the lower 48. Although my migrant successes in Florida, Texas and Ohio were good, I left for Alaska without any eastern Empid flycatchers, and short of a fair few key warblers. Not to mention the continuing flow of vagrant rarities hitting the radar. My concerns amplified as the countdown to the planned 12 May departure - first to Adak Island approached, about halfway out  along the enormous chain of Aleutian Islands - then a couple of days of steaming westward on the Puk Uk to reach Attu, not much more than a stone’s throw from Kamchatka, Russia, and a likely stopping point for many Asian and Arctic bird species that get even mildly blown off course during migration. It proved the critical feature of Sandy Komito’s massive big year record during 1998 – sort of the story behind the movie ‘The Big Year’.

I'm writing this communication with nowhere near enough time to do it justice. So following is a very (very) brief snapshot of the trip. 

First and foremost, was it a successful trip? Well, yeah. The results were good, but not 'mega'. I did something like 25 species to my year list, ten or so being Code 3 birds or better. Perhaps the most substantial ingredient in the mix was that due to mechanical problems, we were stranded on Adak island for four days prior to heading off for Attu. Tour leaders John Puschock and Neil Hayward (yes, that Neil!) when to huge measures to ensure that the unscheduled Adak 'leg' paid off as well as possible - and we did see some great birds - top of the list being a pair of Smews. When finally we set sail, we were very lucky to cross paths with a Short-tailed Albatross ‘the’ target bird for any pelagic trip in the region, and a bird that John and Neil had guestimated a one in three chance of finding. We also got the whole list of targeted Alcids, but missed Mottled Petrel – we were probably a bit too early for migrating birds. I’ll eventually write lots about Adak – a mysterious WWII and cold war ex military base of enormous scale, all abandoned, and and ideal scene for an apocalypse zombie film (or world’s greatest paintball skirmish), the pelagic trip, and of course Attu.

But briefly re Attu, it was quite an adventure. Besides John P and Neil, there were 9 birders, including two other big year birders – Christian Hagenlocher and Laura Keene. It was a great group, and I look forward to writing a proper blog entry about the trip and the fun and funny things that happened under JP's watch. Captain Bill Choate and the crew were absolutely fantastic. I think we had about 8 days on the island. On about half these days we rode bicycles, the others we hoofed it. Most days were very windy, wet and miserable! Huge, huge days, with 12 hours of hiking/biking, usually without much to show for the effort. Towards the end we had two full days of westerlies, so our hopes were high. Not much initially, but the final two days saw the wind swing back around from the East, which of course encourages birds to head back to Russia and Siberia. And yet our best results came during the last two days. The last day, in fact, yielded a total of 10 ‘coded’ birds, though only four (only?!) were new for my year, the others had been seen on Attu during the previous days, or earlier in the year on the mainland. The bad news is that I missed three rarities that were seen by one or two people only – and they were very good birds: Eurasian Hobby, Siberian Ruby-throat, and Hawfinch. The rarities that I did score on Attu included Rustic Bunting, Common Snipe, Pin-tailed Snipe, Eye-browed Thrush, Grey-tailed Tattler (go figure), Common Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint, and White Wagtail. 

Some Photos:
Grey-crowned Rosy-finch, dead Sperm Whale, The Puk-Uk at Attu, THE place of Attu birding history where all groups stayed, Attu, some of the guys - me, Captain Billy, Joisy Brandon, Neil Hayward, Rustic Bunting, eye-browed thrush, secret committee meeting of Laysan Albatrosses. Below that, from Adak: Rock Ptarmigan and Sea Otters.

Update 1 May – Arizona swoop

Make that 12 May – the journey to Attu

Also – the blog is ‘sort of’ up now, and has my current species list at .

Robyn and I have had a terrific few days in Arizona, with ten out of ten for results (well, actually 22 out of 23 species). We made the decision to head that way in part because of the re-appearance of the Tufted Flycatcher at Ramsey Canyon, plus two other recent sightings of rarities – Five-striped Sparrow and Buff-collared Nightjar, plus the still-substantial list of difficult, if not rare species in the region.

I’d missed the Tufted Flycatcher a couple of weeks ago. I was in the region when it was first noticed at the bottom of Ramsey Canyon, well below where ‘it’ and a second individual had spent much of last year, apparently with an attempt at nesting. It was reported on a Monday, and I was all set for a Tuesday morning chase. But lower Ramsey Canyon is owned and operated by a private outfit, and is closed every Tuesday and Wednesday. So along came Thursday, with a massive crowd of birders waiting for a spot in the car park, then a charge up the hill upon the eventual (8AM) opening. I had an Arizona-based birder with me, and after a half-hour or so, I decided to leave him behind and head up the long steep climb to the area that the bird(s) had spent most of their time a year before. After an hour or so without result, I received a text that the bird ‘had been’ seen down below. I basically ran down the steep goat track, arriving where a crowd anxiously searched overhead trees. It turned out that the bird had been visible for a very extended period earlier on. A painful dip!

That was then. This was now, and Robyn and I arrived at the canyon in time for the 8AM entry, with reports of the Mexican rarity from a couple of days earlier. We learned from the receptionist that the sightings had been from way up the hill, beyond a fork in the trail. Robyn hiked to the scenic lookout – I continued on. The location reports were very sketchy, and once or twice I thought I may have heard the bird – only to end up empty-handed. There were a couple of other birders booting around the same trails, but without result, other than reporting to having seen Red-faced Warblers – which I too eventually saw and photographed – a smashing western warbler now in full migration. I went up and down the two ascending trail forks, not really sure where the sightings had come from. And then I heard an upward inflected call. Was that it? Yes! There it was – a uniquely yellow-orange flycatcher. 

For this trip we had rented a ‘large SUV’, which turned out to be a Dodge Journey – not really an off-road car. This became apparent on the goat-track drive into Chino Canyon, which was as dodgy as anything I’ve ever tried to drive in Australia, with proper four wheel drives. We may have done a bit of mild damage to the car, and had lots of false starts and moments of uncertainty, but we made it to what seemed to be the right place. It was possibly the most beautiful place I’d ever been. Really stunning mountain desert with fabulous cactus and arid vegetation – a little chunk of Mexico. We saw lots of birds, and incredibly, did track down the targeted rarity – Five-striped Sparrow. Yes!!

We limped out of the place, got onto the proper highway system, and fled south – all the way to the Mexican border, in search of California Gulch, where Buff-collared Night Hawks had been hear a couple of days earlier. The directions proved to be way-dodgy, and once again we took our vehicle to places it should never have had to experience. We got to the most remote place imaginable, with an hour to spare before nightfall. But shortly after our arrival a van – yes van rocked up with a group of guided birders. What the?! It turned out that there is a much much easier access road to the area, which was a great relief. The Night Hawks began calling right on dark, so we skidadled, with the mission of getting as far north as we could in anticipation of a flight to San Francisco to see about a Little Stint – and a cross-country haul to Florida to make our Dry Tortugas day trip out of Key West.

OK, time out… I’m taking this up much later than Arizona – which I can hardly remember. Its now 12 May and I’m on a flight in a very very old aircraft to Adak Island, where the Puk-uk was supposed to be waiting to take us on a pelagic route to legendary Attu Island, for a 12 day rarities search. At this stage the best-case-scenario is that the boat will be three days late, so hoping Adak will yield some birds on its own. Following is a really brief synopsis of what’s been happening. The good news is that I’ve sort of launched the blog, so you can see my bird list and kind of see from the locations of the recent sightings where I’ve been.

We did get the Little Stint (btw, it always sounds so straightforward and easy ‘we got the whatever’, but it never is – and I could easily write a 10 pager on most of the rarities for the year, including this one) and got to Miami in time to make it to Marathon Key three hours later, a bit after nightfall, with hopes of at least hearing an Antillean Nightjar at this tried and proven Marathon airstrip. And we weren’t disappointed – hearing (and as usual, recording) at least two individuals. To Key West and an expensive night’s sleep. We boarded the Yankee Freedom at 8 and had a no-bird trip to Fort Jefferson three hours or so later. Within sight of the island fortress, birds began to appear, and we photographed an unusual swallow that may eventually prove to be something special. I got much better views of ‘the’ Black Noddy that hangs out with the hundreds of Brown Noddies, and had a poor look at a fly-by White-tailed Tropicbird. There were a number of birders on the boat, and whilst I tried to get them off the ship and onto the Black Noddy in time, none saw it. Similar result with the Tropicbird: I was straggling in the drizzly conditions trying to squeeze something good off the island prior to 2:45 departure. I walked fast towards the boat at 2:44, and as I approached I could hear my name being paged. Oops. But what a lucky break – As I sped to within thirty metres of the plankway, the Tropicbird flew over. Whoo-hoo!

We raced back to Miami, shot up to New Jersey to score the Fork-tailed Flycatcher (as I said, I really could write ten pages about each of these rarity chases, but what am I gonna do? No time). We then dropped down to North Carolina for a big, and ultimately unsuccessful chase of the Little Egret that was mixing it up with a spread out population of a couple of hundred Snowy Egrets, then off to The Biggest Week in American Birding in northern Ohio. We only had two days at the event, which we’d taken part in a year earlier. This is one of the best places to see concentrations of Spring migrants – especially warblers. We got all of the relatively common warblers I needed, but none of the tough ones like Connecticut, Mourning, Cerulean, or Golden-winged, and surprisingly no Flycatchers. With the impending Alaskan trip deadline, we took the decision of sending Robyn home a day early, so I could chase at least one more rarity before being taken out of the chase-game for several weeks (I have a week in Nome/Gambell Alaska after Attu). Since there were a couple of more sightings of the Little Egret after our miss, I went there first, and after a four hour effort of trudging through tall wet grass, skin beginning to peel off my feet, I resigned to taking a little snooze. Thankfully I’d done my usual trick of exchanging phone numbers with anyone and everyone on a rarity stakeout, and I got the call I love best: “we’ve got the bird”. The directions were dodgy, but I eventually got to the right place after a couple of miles in fresh dry socks, and kaboom! Little Egret. Checking eBird I decided that between the Bahama Mockingbird in Florida and the Slate-throated Redstart in Arizona, the only choice that could get me to Alaska in time was the Mockingbird. It was the right choice, and worked out with miraculous ease – the bird was right where it was supposed to be at the opening of the Park in Fort Lauderdale. Could I possibly squeeze in a race to see the Curlew Sandpiper that had reappeared in New Jersey? Yes! And a squeeze it was – while I struggled to pull the breeding plumaged female CS out of thousands of Dunlins and Long-billed Dowitchers. I started at early light was into my last half hour of time available before I’d need to drive 1.5 hours up to Philly airport to make my Anchorage flight yesterday. It was about 2PM when the little red devil broke from the huddled pack of many hundreds sleeping Dunlins to do a little chasing of ‘peeps’ (Semi-palmated and Least Sandpipers) on the edge of the group. Tick and Run!  Took a chance with the cops and made it to the airport with about a half hour to spare.

Having Robyn over for a couple of weeks was really wonderful. I truly wished she didn’t have to head back. When she’s here, she’s totally committed to helping me get on my feet in areas of weakness, and to make sure I don’t miss a beat so far as the birding is concerned. And didn’t we kick some goals during this period. My rarities list, which is now at 62 as well as my total year-list of 632 [about 20 behind the competition], jumped strongly during this period of intensive birding, during which time I never had a complaint about the pressure. I must say however that it was a little embarrassing when we met up with some Joisey birders on the Fork-tailed Flycatcher twitch and Robyn kept asking them to please say: “Faghettaboudit” - sometimes I wonder if the girl will ever grow up.

Some of the chased rarities:  Little Stint, Little Egret, Tufted Flycatcher, Five-striped Sparrow, Black Noddy, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Bahama Mockingbird, Curlew Sandpiper