18 September Update

18 September Update

Will add more photos when I can! Thought it best to get something out while I have the energy.

Sorry about the month between reports, but I’ve been busy. I’m several days into an extended stretch on St Paul Island, currently with just-arrived Zughunruhe (John Puschock’s) group. This followed a day of luxuriating in an Anchorage hotel after surviving three weeks in Gambell (St Lawrence Island). With such a lot of ground to recount since my last report of over a month ago, I’ll try to stick to the birding highlights in roughly the right chronology. 

Craveri’s crapshoot finally a winner
The biggest news on my bird-finding front was/is that following such a ridiculous amount of dedicated effort extended over something like eight trips to sea, I finally got the elusive little Craveri’s Murrelet on 20 August off of Half Moon Bay, California on an Alvaro trip. Conditions were ideal - with spectacularly flat and glassy-smooth seas. After first encountering a pair of similar and seemingly much more common Scripp’s Murrelets at mid-morning, after so much focus on Craveri’s, I began dwelling on the unfolding prospect of not seeing the slightly darker target species during my American year. But then someone spotted a group of three murrelets that we had a brief look before they flushed and headed due east. I’d been told that once in flight, Craveri’s are virtually never seen again – flying just above the surface for great distances. But Alvaro was enthusiastic and the Captain was willing, so with my insistence we pushed the New Captain Pete hard and put on a chase. After several minutes, right at the point of our slowing to turn around and resume course, a trio of murrelets was noticed just a hundred metres ahead. Didn’t take long to clearly recognise the more extensive black markings on head and chin. High fives and lots of excitement all ‘round!

Craveri's Murrelet threesome 

Losing streak ends…
The Saturday Craveri’s-scoring pelagic trip followed a day on the same boat in roughly the same waters that I’d thoroughly enjoyed with Debi Shearwater’s group. We had lots of fun on that trip too, with plenty of birds and whales – even without any new birds for my year-list. After the Friday/Saturday Half Moon double-header I had to get to San Diego for the much anticipated Sunday pelagic trip on the spacious and aptly named Grande. The trip was led by San Diego seabird stalwart Dave Povey. As always happens on pelagic birding missions, I met lots of fantastic birders. In this case, with so many sets of eyes on the lookout (50?) we were destined to find some good birds. Although we never found the sought-after large rafts of roosting storm-petrels – which seem to be the requisite for finding Least Storm-Petrels (typically mixed in Black Storm-Petrels), we did encounter some terrific seabirds, including two ‘drive-by’ encounters with pairs of my old friend Craveri’s Murrelets. Nearly of greater significance however was a ‘near hit’ for me for another tick, a probable Townsend’s Storm-Petrel that I spotted late in the day, no more than 20 metres to the left of the bow. Despite calling it, and having a good binocular view for several seconds before swinging the camera, only a half-dozen or so other birders got onto the bird. This species is a recent taxonomic split from Leach’s Storm-Petrel, which remains well represented in southern Californian waters by the retained ‘Chapman’s’ subspecies. Like most of the other birders on board I saw at least five Chapman’s Storm-petrels over the course of the day, which were dark brown with varying degrees of ‘white’ in rump from nearly absent to off-white. With respect to the identification of the Townsend’s SP, it seemed to me to tick all of the boxes, being very black in overall presentation with a bright white, seemingly single white patch on rump. It flew more erratically – seemingly on shorter wings – and of a ‘chunkier’ physique. Tragically (and I don’t choose that word lightly), there seemed to be no concensus among the few other birders who saw the bird, and my photos, which are poor to very poor, were apparently the only ones taken. This bird isn’t off the radar for my year of birding yet however, and I’ll be giving it my best shot through whatever pelagic opportunities lay ahead.

Untickable likely Townsend's Storm-Petrel

The ‘sure bet’ turned bad Gambell
Fall Gambell birding is legendary for producing lots of stray Asian migratory birds, and is one of those ‘must do’ activities during an ABA big year. During most years there are periods of favourable winds and climatic circumstances to encourage an influx of birds from visible-to-the-eye Russia. Most trips at this time of year result in sightings of all sorts of rarities, from Little Bunting and Willow Warbler to Pechora Pipit and Blue-tailed Redflank. The majority of these encounters take place among the famous Gambell ‘bone yards’ – where upwards of thirty birders comb the known hot spots in unison in order to flush skulking birds into view.  But of course there are also occasional years with less impressive results. I suppose the island was overdue for a ‘worst-ever’ birding result, following spectacular results achieved durng the Fall seasons of 2014 and 2015. And that is precisely what happened during ‘my’ 25-day (22 August – 15 September) Gambell visit, according to Gambell birding guru and statistician Paul Lehman. Paul has been incredibly helpful to me over the year, and especially with planning for Alaska and sea birding. He's about as good as a birder can possibly get, and yet continues to be generous to a fault. The dreaded northerly winds predominated most of my stay, and even during the brief periods of southerly (and even one day of blessed westerlies), few birds veered far enough to the east of traditional Asian migration pathways to drop in for a Gambell visit. The best birding results came in the earliest days of my visit, and I did manage to add two species to my year-list before the start of September: Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and Dusky Warbler. By comparison, if a repeat of last Fall’s results had occurred, I would have added closer to ten species. No complaints however, since this year’s mainland influx of rarities has been absolutely spectacular – sort of a ‘good weather big year’ set of conditions from 1 January when compared to other big year experiences during the past decade. I continue to feel blessed. 

Although I most certainly did flush a Lesser Sand Plover during a morning ATV blitz along the beach, the worst nightmare followed: no relocation by me or others, and no photos. In my case (which I believed, until my birding experiences of this year, is universal) 'counted' bird sightings go on my list if and only if I can lay in bed at night and know that the sighting was certain. I think that’s the best definition of an adequate sighting. I can do that for this sighting, and it is is the first time that I can think of that I’ve also taken into account the perception of others, and it won't be going on my list. Apart from my own personal integrity, for which I'm responsible, I've dealt with and witnessed some unusual and challenging circumstances over the course of this year that in the fullness of time will be appropriate for comment. With respect to Lesser Sand Plovers it’s still possible for another opportunity on St Paul Island.

As in the Springtime visit to Gambell, my Fall trip included a period of participation in Aaron Lang’s Wilderness Birding Adventures organised tour. Aaron is a great guy with a winning mix of birding talent, personal and organisational skills, and wicked sense of humour, and so is perfectly suited for guiding these sorts of trips. Aaron’s Fall trip ran through the first 10 days of September, leaving me to do my own thing for my first nine days and last five days on the island. 

Knowing about my less than confident mindset going into the Alaskan island birding portion of my year, my great friend, confidante, and partner in a crazy mix of business, birding and conservation projects, Tim Faulkner offered to drop everything sane in his world to join me at Gambell for my nine-day stretch prior to the WBA tour. Tim made a huge difference to my experience, providing tremendous support - both moral and technical, while at the same time making a positive impression amongst the early birders and resident Eskimos alike, as is his way. The latest season of Tim’s television show Outback Adventures of Tim Faulkner is only a week or two prior to airing, and the first episode is now excitedly anticipated by many Gambellites.

Irreverent yet indefatigable Tim Faulkner

The other really good thing that happened on Gambell during such an extended period that yielded so few birds is that fellow big-year birders Laura Keene and Christian Hagenlocher were also there banging their heads on the same wall for much of the period. It was really fantastic spending time birding and comparing notes with them. Both are tracking well to achieve their big year goals, which extend well beyond merely seeing as many species as possible – though it is increasingly apparent that they are likely to wind up with a year list that will eclipse the previous record of 749.

I knew it would be tough on the islands, and it has been. Social circumstances haven't always been wonderful... But the encouragement from so many birders both on the islands and beyond has been great, and some of the communications from back home have been as timely as they’ve been brilliant. This came from George Swann precisely on the heal of the Lesser Sand Plover occasion during my Gambell trip: “Well done John! You’re a bloody champion. What a great ambassador for Aussie birding and the devils. We all love you!” I think the message says more about the writer than the recipient – but thanks George, you really helped me when I needed it most. And Paul Andrew, thanks for the support and advice re birding and our conservation projects, you are the real deal. And you California four! Thanks for the advice - which I'm taking.