30 November

30 November Update

Will have to up my carbon offset forecasts fairly dramatically after the last week of travel. Due to terrible timing of unfolding of information about the Pine Bunting that Clarence Irrigoo found, and in recognition of predicted winds that seemed likely to cause cancellation of flights to and from Gambell for next few days, I flew from Seattle to Miami on the 23rd, instead of making the smarter move to Nome and Gambell. I’d heard new intel about the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t La Sagra’s Flycatcher at Key Biscayne, Florida, so thought it was the least of three potential evils – being stuck on Gambell for potentially days on end, missing the La Sagra’s for the third time, or chasing the Massachusetts duck that would probably wind up being uncountable due to questionable provenance. Feeling conflicted and wounded, I wasn’t emotionally prepared for my message updates on my layover in Detroit – about halfway through the 12-hour flight ordeal from Seattle to Miami: the Pine Bunting was still present in Clarence’s backyard, while forecast weather conditions had dramatically calmed. If I could have retrieved my bags, I would have, and turned around. Instead, I cried inside (and maybe just a little on the outside), buckled down, and got on my next flight leg.

Fortunately, the trip to Miami played out well, despite working myself up to the vomit-stage. Laura and Dave were also looking for the La Sagra’s at Bill Baggs State Park, and we kept in touch during our search on Wednesday and Thursday via text messaging. I saw the bird on both the Wednesday (24 Nov) and Thursday mornings. On the first occasion, near the bicycle rental building (which is a few hundred metres from ‘the’ off-limits epicentre of recent sightings), I tracked it down as it was calling, and managed to get sound recordings and one fleeting, but good view. I hung in for another hour without hearing a peep, before searching the perimeter of the restricted areas where I really wanted to be. Thursday morning Laura and I called in to the park office to ask for permission to wander the ‘off limits’ trails where the bird had been sighted on multiple recent occasions.  To our surprise and joy, the reception was very warm, and we were given approval for the day to search the area. We found that the bird was dipping in and out of a large fig tree, though neither of us managed to get a photograph. Laura got a much better sound recording of it after I left, clearly capturing the unmistakeable ‘wheet… wheet’ (higher than Great-crested Flycatcher). We bumped into well-known  local birder Robin Dias, who has been undertaking banding and monitoring surveys of the birds of the reserve for many years, and was on one of her regular birding ‘rounds. She was initially a little surprised to encounter us in the off-limits area, but then was delighted to hear that we had gained permission to be there. She listened to my recording of the La Sagra's - barely audible, and gave the 'thumbs up' (she later also gave higher thumbs up to Laura for her recordings, which are apparently quite good). She told us that the tree where we’d seen the bird was the same one that she had seen it flying backwards and forwards to and from the Gumbo Limbo tree across the track on previous occasions, but was frustrated by not being able to openly share the information.

The inimitable Laura Keane after seeing La Sagra's Flycatcher, 
well and truly surpassing the 750 species mark. 
And no signs of slowing down!

A nice outcome from Laura and my La Sagra’s twitch was that Robin followed up with a discussion with the park management, and nutted out an understanding that so long as birders stuck to certain guidelines, they would from that point on be given access to certain areas that were hitherto out of bounds – including what appears to be the current principal hangout of the La Sagra’s. Here’s something Robin wrote for the Tropical Audubon birding discussion forum.

After changing my flight destinations from Miami - first from Gambell to Boston (information about the legitimacy of the Eastern Spot-billed Duck was in a state of oscillation), then back to Gambell again, I embarked yet again on nearly the longest set of flights possible within the continental United States, for the ‘surely its gone by now’ Pine Bunting. I’d been communicating with Clarence on a daily basis, and although he was seeing the bird at least once each day, he expressed concern about the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, which included very high winds and driving sleet. One of his photographs from Friday suggested that the bird might be starting to look weak. 

My connecting flight from Anchorage to Nome included my chief competitor for this year’s effort – Bradley McDonald - of pen-name ‘Olaf Danielson’. We took different flights from Nome to Gambell – he on RAVN, me on Bering Airlines, and his flight landed twenty minutes or so ahead of mine. I climbed out of my eight-seater at 4:30PM, with maybe 45 minutes of visible light remaining, and biting cold and windy conditions. I scanned the ATVs that were picking up or dropping off freight and passengers and found ‘John’, a young local family man was prepared to be my guide for the next half hour. Moving in at ‘the lodge’ could wait - we strapped my bags on the vehicle and bolted for Clarence’s house. He was home, and the three of us walked twenty metres or so towards the beach before John said ‘those’ three words: “There it is.” I love those words. “There it is…” Clarence and I could see he was right! The Pine Bunting was bigger than I’d expected – seemingly as big as a Snow Bunting, and clearly with the tell-tale chestnut eye stripe with white ‘patch’ below it. It struck me as looking just a bit dishevelled, and moved around furtively at ground level, allowing an uninvited dog to nearly catch it. Just as I clumsily began firing my camera with rapidly numbing fingers, Olaf appeared and joined the photo session. I said “You gotta admit, this is as good a moment as we’ll ever get together - later on we can go back to wanting to strangle each other.” He didn't disagree. Later, with just Olaf and I occupying the spacious ‘lodge’, there were pleasant discussions about the bird and other subjects – which I certainly enjoyed. It really was the case that we’d both left getting to Gambell impossibly late, and were very lucky to see the bunting. My etremities were so cold and numb that I somehow injured a ring-finger at some stage without realising it. Now it seems to be bent at the first knuckle won’t straighten out by its own volution.

The beach view from near Clarence's back door. That's the Pine Bunting 
in the very centre of image - just before a dog nearly caught it.

The next day saw pre-sunrise ‘birdable’ conditions at 11:00, at which time I set off for a four-hour hike around some of the birding hotspots, including the ‘far boneyard’, along the mountain edge to beyond the ‘mossy pool’ to the east, and to the Alcid rookery areas where cliff meet sea, then back to town and Clarence’s place.

The 'Far Boneyard' - a snowy leg-break trap that yielded no birds. But providing 
as magical and unforgettable an experience as I could ever have asked for.

Life-blood of the Arctic

After a not-so-fantastic week or two, I left Gambell 
feeling better than I've felt in a long time. 

It’s been eventful post-Gambell, but I’ll catch up again soon. Yeah, sure. In the mean time, Ken Blankenship has been helping immensely with the retrogressive uploading of my eBird listings, such as they will be. I expect there will be teething issues, so suggestions are welcome, but save the complaints till the whole process is complete! And nearly through uploading the images I have of the birds on my list. Hopefully by year's end I'll fill some of the missing spaces, but should reach the 95% mark in the next few days. Once I figure out how to edit sound recordings, I'll put up recordings for all of the nocturnal birds for which I don't have photos, except for one - Boreal Owl, which has 'done me wrong' all through the year.

Oh, and wanted to let all of you weary travelers know
that 'Fat Smitty's Place' has it all! For the RIGHT traveler at least.
Some where in Washington - I think about two weeks ago.