June 2012 News

Site Updates; Few updates this month because I was away birding in Alaska.

Updated 1 July, 2012

Friday 1st June

Mervyn Pearce emailed to say he'd seen a pair of Little Ringed Plovers Charadrius dubius on the dam today.

ALASKAN DIARY: Light south to south-west winds brought fog for most of the day and temperatures of about 28 to 36 Fahrenheit. A Greater White-fronted Goose appeared out of the fog briefly and we found a ♂ Eurasian Green-winged Teal (they're not split by the AOU) on one of the pools. About 2500 Thick-billed Murres (Brunnich's Guillemots) passed the point and a ♀ Varied Thrush was in the Near Boneyard.

Saturday 2nd June

A 2nd-summer Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis was reported by Sean Davies.

ALASKAN DIARY: There was a cold south to SSE blow with temperatures from 30 to about 36 Fahrenheit, reduced somewhat by the wind chill. We saw our first Pacific Golden Plover, 2 Ruddy Turnstones, a 1st-calendar year Slaty-backed and single Glaucous-winged Gulls and 5 Grey Whales close offshore. Other than that, it was business as usual with the alcids in their tens of thousands passing by.

Sunday 3rd June

ALASKAN DIARY: Snow fell early, with intermittent precipitation all day. The temperature barely rose much above freezing and we spent much of the day sea watching. The prize for some of the group, who stuck it out, was an Arctic (Black-throated) Loon which many had come to get for their ABA lists. There was also some excitement when a brown bird came along the beach that looked for all the world like a possible shearwater until Jon put me right. It turned out to be a dark morph of the Pacific race of Northern Fulmar which I'd not seen before. Apparently, they can vary in colour from almost white through to chocolate brown. The Atlantic race dark morph is the so-called Blue Fulmar. We also saw a Bearded Seal in the evening and reckon we'd seen just short of 400 King Eiders throughout the day.

Monday 4th June

ALASKAN DIARY: We flew back to Nome from Gambell today and quite remarkably, a White-tailed Eagle flew over as we were boarding the plane. Great for the US contingent, but I'd have preferred a Steller's! It marked the end of an interesting, if quiet, week in the tiny Yupik Eskimo village on St. Lawrence Island. 2 Grey-cheeked Thrushes in the Near Boneyard were the only other new migrants today.

Tuesday 5th June

ALASKAN DIARY: Today we birded the Council Road east out of Nome along Safety Lagoon to mile post 46. The temperature was a balmy 45-60 Fahrenheit, though we had some drizzle. I got to see the famous old steam engines left rusting in the marsh beside the Solomon River since 1913 and took a few photos. The excellent birding continued and we quickly picked up Aleutian Tern, 4 Sabine's Gulls and 3 Red (Grey) Phalaropes at Nome River mouth near town. I photographed breeding Semipalmated Sandpipers on territory (staining my trouser knees with Crowberry in the process) and we saw the Beringian form of Eastern Yellow Wagtail M.f. tschutschensis that breeds in Alaska, having migrated north from its wintering grounds in the East Indies via eastern China. We also came across some distant Muskox near the top of a mountain ridge. 2 Stilt Sandpipers were found in Nome near the Airport when we returned to town and we all had our photo taken at the 'twitch' by the roving reporter of the Nome Nugget while we watched them!

Wednesday 6th June

ALASKAN DIARY: Without question my longest day of birding, ever. We got up at 0330 hrs and left Nome at 0400 hrs to drive the Kougarok Road 75 miles north from Nome where we saw Bristle-thighed Curlews, Hudsonian Whimbrels, American Tree Sparrows and Bluethroats singing, an Arctic Warbler just in on it's breeding territory and lots of other good birds, including Gyrfalcons at the nest, before returning to Nome for our evening meal. Best of all though, was the sight of my first ever Grizzly Bear splashing across the upper reaches of the Nome River. After tea we drove to mile post 48 on the Teller Road in search of Rock Ptarmigan and Black-bellied (Grey) and Pacific Golden Plovers on breeding territories (we had seen American Golden Plover on territory with the curlews earlier in the day). We eventually got back to the hotel, ready for bed, at 2310 hrs.

Thursday 7th June

ALASKAN DIARY: A final morning of birding around Nome, where we found an adult Slaty-backed Gull on the town landfill site before flying back to Anchorage and going out on a 'twitch' by taxi to see a 2nd-year Franklin's Gull at Westchester Lagoon, prompted by our leader Jon who needed it for his Alaska list!

Friday 8th June

A Common Tern Sterna hirundo reported by Sean Davies.

ALASKAN DIARY: We flew out from Anchorage to St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs today, making an unexpected stop on St. George Island where we had a chance to get off and bag another island tick! St. Paul island is volcanic in origin and there are plenty of visual clues as you travel around it's 43 square miles in the form of cinder craters and black volcanic sand beaches. There is a population of approx 450 living on the island, mainly Aleuts, although this is swelled by temporary workers in the fish processing plant. As soon as we'd settled into the accommodation we went out to the nearest lake and watched Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes bathing before heading off to the coast to see the Northern Fur Seal bulls gathering on the beaches in readiness for the arrival of the females. We also saw a few Arctic Foxes, especially around the harbour, looking a bit dishevelled as they moult their winter coats. This particular population was introduced onto the island by Russian fur traders sometime after they arrived on the islands in the late 18th century.

Saturday 9th June

Sean Davies found 2 Storm Petrels Hydrobates pelagicus off Rainbow Point this morning. One was present until at least 1520 hrs. It's only the 2nd lake record, the first being in 1983, so was a cracking find by Sean and well done him for making the effort to look.

ALASKAN DIARY: It was foggy and in the low 40s Fahrenheit most of the day, though the cloud did lift a little in the afternoon. There weren't too many new birds to see, though a Tundra Swan and a female Pacific Golden Plover did put in an appearance. We spent much of our time getting up close and personal with the sea birds on the south-west cliffs, including Red-faced Cormorants nesting. We have been eating our meals in the canteen of the Trident fish processing plant at the harbour, where King Crabs are brought in to be unloaded from the 'Deadliest Catch' trawlers and packed for despatch. Apparently, due to the Bering Sea having been frozen much further south than at any time in the last 30 years, the crab season has been extended. It will be Halibut season in July and August.

Sunday 10th June

ALASKAN DIARY: After getting permission to visit the high cliffs on St. Paul Island, Doug Koch and I duly walked the coastal path for half an hour up into the fog hoping to photograph Red-legged Kittiwakes on the nest. Sadly, during the hour we spent there, the fog barely lifted and at times we couldn't even see the sea 550 feet below us as we hung over the edge with cameras poised. None of the 3 sitting birds stood up on the nest, nor did any of their partners come in with food. It was a marvellous experience though. Later we met with the rest of the group and I saw 2 Ancient Murrelets before boarding the plane for the long flight back to Anchorage via St. George, where the pilot had to make two attempts before managing to land. Our tour leader Jon L Dunn left us at the airport to return to California and Gavin Bieber took over for the next part of the adventure.

Monday 11th June

ALASKAN DIARY: We motored the 250 or so miles from Anchorage up to Denali National Park this afternoon, after spending the morning birding around Anchorage. We visited Connor Lake but got asailed by 'skeeters' for the first time on the trip. We saw the Pacific Loons nest, watched over by a webcam. Then we went to Westchester Lagoon where we saw the Franklin's Gull again and the 7th Western Kingbird for Alaska (found by Carolyn Mangeng and group leader Gavin Bieber prompting 'high fives' all round). 15 Hudsonian Godwits were feeding distantly out on the mudflats at Cook Inlet where the tidal range is one of the highest in the world.

Tuesday 12th June

ALASKAN DIARY: Today was spent on the tour bus covering over 130 miles in Denali National Park and Preserve. The undoubted highlight were the sightings of 11 Grizzly Bears, one of which posed beautifully for me to get some pictures out of the bus window. We also saw Caribou and Dall Sheep in the park and 2 Moose beside the road later in the day. The National Park was set up to protect Dall Sheep which had been all but exterminated by food providers to the gold prospectors not, as you might imagine, to protect the environs of Mount McKinley. Today the park embraces over 6 million acres! Sadly for us, it rained all day and the mountain was enveloped in cloud.

Wednesday 13th June

ALASKAN DIARY: The incessant rain caused an avalanche in the park overnight and the park road was closed. We decided to travel north towards Fairbanks along the George Parks Highway and bird an area where we hoped to find a few specialties such as Northern Hawk Owl and American Three-toed Woodpecker. Sadly, we connected with neither, but I did get Trumpeter Swan and Bohemian Waxwing on a day when few birds seemed to be singing despite the sunshine.

Thursday 14th June

ALASKAN DIARY: We travelled back to Anchorage again today via Denali Highway to Paxson, then along the equally scenic route back through Palmer. A very long day in the van and our hopes of connecting with the extremely elusive Smith's Longspur and Northern Hawk Owl were dashed again. We did find Olive-sided Flycatcher and Boreal Chickadee as well as a North American Porcupine, all of which I've seen on previous visits to the USA. The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the amazing scenery as we travelled east along the Alaska Range and back west along the Chugach Range where we saw the impressive Matanuska Glacier spilling out onto the valley floor beside the freeway. It's 27 miles long and 4 miles wide.

Friday 15th June

ALASKAN DIARY: Back in the plane again today for the second visit to Nome. It was warm and sunny when we got there and we spent the afternoon and early evening birding around town from the harbour to the Nome river mouth. We didn't find anything special other than the 2 Slaty-backed Gulls (adult and 2nd cal. year) that have been hanging around this Spring. We saw a few more Aleutian Terns as we got some of the new tour group members a few 'lifers'. Tomorrow we have a trip along the Council Road, east of town, to look forward to. It ought to mean lots of wildfowl and shorebirds along Safety Lagoon.

Saturday 16th June

ALASKAN DIARY: We birded the entire length of the Council Road from Nome today turning round when we got to the Niukluk River at about 75 miles. The birding along Safety Lagoon was excellent and an unexpected party of 10 Sabine's Gulls and a lone Caspian Tern were welcome. Further along the road we had stunning views of a Gyrfalcon nest with the female on the edge and 2 or 3 fluffy white juveniles inside, while the male circled high above the bluff. 3 or 4 Northern Wheatears at the top of the pass and a Golden Eagle were probably the pick of the rest, though a probable Yellow-billed Loon won star prize for its abysmal landing on the sea way out in the haze. The tundra flowers have really come into bloom since we were last here and it is especially nice to see carpets of Mountain Avens all over the high tundra dwarf shrub mat.

Sunday 17th June

ALASKAN DIARY: It was back up the Kougarok Road today, at a much more sensible start time, and we hadn't gone 20 miles before we lucked into a Northern Hawk Owl sitting beside the road getting mobbed by swallows and an American Robin. We also saw a Northern Shrike and 2 Northern Rough-legged Hawks on the way up the road. I saw a single Bristle-thighed Curlew on our walk up the Coffee Dome slope at MP 72.5 miles and had great views of an American Golden Plover and Rock Ptarmigan on the hill, while on the way back at Pilgrim Hot Springs we had a pair of Willow Ptarmigan in the road. It was so surprising to see how the tundra had changed since we last visited on the 6th June. There were lots more flowers out and butterflies dancing around all over the place in the warm sunshine. It really felt like Spring.

Monday 18th June

ALASKAN DIARY: The scheduled flight from Nome back to Anchorage was delayed this afternoon, so we did a bit of extra birding around the town and out along the Council Road to Safety Lagoon. However, there's nothing new to report from there. This evening, after dinner we popped over to the other side of Lake Spenard (which we're staying beside) to try and catch up a with a Least Flycatcher (an Alaska tick for Gavin and lifer for me) and Western Wood-Pewee. We saw the pewee but not the flycatcher, unfortunately, so will try again in the morning. Lake Hood/Spenard is said to be the busiest sea-plane base in the world (handling an average of 190 flights per day in 2005), but despite the frequent flights, there are a few regular ducks and shorebirds to be found even where the planes hurtle by as they take off and land. Tomorrow we'll bird around Anchorage again in the morning and then head down to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula in preparation for our pelagic trip out around the fjords and islands on Wednesday, where I hope to see Orcas and Kittlitz's Murrelets at least. So far, we've racked up about 185 bird spp. with a healthy number of mammals, butterflies, and flowers thrown in for good measure. I've got something like 16 'lifers' and added a few more to my ABA list which is just short of 560 spp. So, it's all good and we're having fun!

Tuesday 19th June

ALASKAN DIARY: We poked around Anchorage this morning and had a very fine breakfast stop at the Middle Way Cafe. We caught up with an American Dipper at Fish Creek but didn't see the Least Flycatcher unfortunately. The drive down to Seward was utterly breathtaking and a stop on the edge of Seward at Ava's bird feeders produced Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Rufous Hummingbirds among others. This morning, at Westchester Lagoon, I remarked on a birder taking notes to Gavin and he said "yeah, he's a Brit." (most Americans don't seem to use field notebooks, in my experience). It turned out to be Mike King the Gloster Birder! What an amazing coincidence...

Wednesday 20th June

I received the following email from Hilary Raeburn: I went to Blagdon today (19th) for the first time this month. The weather has been terrible.  Anyway, I was delighted to see two or three families of Common Coots Fulica atra and one of Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis.  Also a Greylag Anser anser with the Canada Geese Branta canadensis. I'm so pleased to hear some of the surface nesting birds are bringing off young despite the heavy predation by Carrion Crows Corvus corone and Gulls Larus sp. Thanks for the update Hilary.

ALASKAN DIARY: Today was the day of the Kenai Fjords Pelagic. 9.5 hours in a 43' boat which I was looking forward to with fear and trepidation. It was fantastic! Our skipper Andrea and first mate Mike were first class, quickly putting us into position with 4 'bubble feeding' Humpback Whales right by the boat. When they burst upwards with mouths open I couldn't fit them into the frame with my 300mm lens. It was astonishing. I saw lots of Dall's Porpoise, 2 Harbour Porpoise, 11 Humpies and 3 or 4 Fin Whales but no Orcas, the cetacean that's been on my wish list for so long. Steller's Sea lions hauled out on the rocks, the oh so cute Sea Otters, a calving glacier with Kittlitz's Murrelets close by, untold numbers of Murres (Guillemots), and lot's of Murrelets and Puffins made for an unforgetable experience between the snowy, forested mountains. We finished the day with another visit to Ray's, overlooking the harbour, for a Halibut dinner. What more could a man want? It was sublime and so much the better for being washed down with a pint of Alaskan Amber.

Thursday 21st June

ALASKAN DIARY: We had a nice easy day today after all the excitement of yesterday. We spent some time birding in the woods around Seward before driving back towards Anchorage and taking in a few stops on the way. I think one of the strangest things I've been seeing is Pieris napi in good numbers. This is, of course, is known as Green-veined White at home but called Mustard White over here on the other side of the pond. New birds for the trip today included American 3-toed Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, 'Sooty' Fox and Song Sparrows. I chatted to some guys this morning who are managing the run of Coho / Silver Salmon up the Bear Lake Creek near Seward. They were trapping them, releasing the males over the falls and injecting the females with antibiotics to control a kidney infection. It's part of a 5 year programme designed to eliminate the disease. The run is late this year, it should have started in mid to late May but has only just got going due to the cold spring. This probably explains why the Orcas weren't in Resurrection Sound as well. Tomorrow, Vicki, Gavin and I are off to Barrow for 3 days, the northern most city in the USA. The Arctic sea ice is still there, so I'm hoping for some good things, though not entirely sure that I'll see anything new birdwise.

Friday 22nd June

Sean Davies reported what is presumed to be the same moulting ♂ Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina that has been at Chew recently, in Holt Bay.

ALASKAN DIARY: We flew to Barrow via Fairbanks and Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) and as we dropped towards the airport I got some lovely views of the tundra polygons ( but unfortunately didn't have my Lumix handy to photograph them. Barrow is 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle and about 1300 miles from the North Pole on the Alaskan North Slope facing out towards the Arctic Ocean (Chukchi and Beaufort Seas). We had an afternoon birding around the city, which has a population of approx 4200, seeing 4 more Steller's and 5 Spectacled Eiders in the ice leads just off the beach, our first breeding Baird's Sandpipers, a Snowy Owl (which lends its name to the Inupiat Eskimo name for Barrow of Utqiaġvik or Ukpiaġvik, meaning "the place where we hunt Snowy Owls"), Brown Lemming and Spotted and Bearded Seals out on the offshore ice.

Saturday 23rd June

Another email from Sean Davies to say the moulting ♂ Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina was in Holt Bay again today and the Greylag Anser anser was still present in the Canada Goose Branta canadensis flock (since at least 17th June). Chris and Graham carried out the WeBS Count today (thanks guys) and added a Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos to Seans records above.

ALASKAN DIARY: A full day of birding on the various dirt roads around the city and 12 miles out into the Arctic tundra along Cake Eater Road brought us a rather surprising Eastern Kingbird, 24 more Spectacled Eiders, 11 Yellow-billed Loons, a Peregrine Falcon and a flock of 9 Sabine's Gulls flying over the sea ice. We also enjoyed a couple of walks out onto the tundra (permits required) during the day among the 'polygons', breeding shorebirds and flowers that were just starting to appear up here. Most surprising though was the news of a male Ruff found by a non-birder that we were told about during our evening meal. We dressed in our cold weather gear again and went for a look. At first we had no success and while we were looking a car pulled up driven by the guy who found it and Nigel Marven (Discovery Channel natural history broadcaster from Bristol). We had a good chat and as they drove off the bird flew into the wet area beside the road. I sprinted down the road after their car and they came back to see it. On the way back to town we saw a female Varied Thrush fly in front of the car and land on the tundra close by, looking a bit out of place. It should have been 1000 miles further south in the coastal temperate rain forest around Seward.

Sunday 24th June

ALASKAN DIARY: My last day of birding in Alaska and what a day it was! We got up at 0415 hrs and met our Inupiat guide Marlowe for a trip out to Point Barrow (permit required), the northernmost point of the US mainland. This visit was to see Black Guillemot, shorebirds, and a chance of Polar Bear. The Inupiats put their bone piles of subsistence hunting remains, including whales, out on the point to attract the Polar Bears away from town and provide food for the few that might get stranded there when the ice retreats north. Marlowe hadn't seen a Polar Bear for a week out on the point, though there were reports of others closer to town while we were there, but as luck would have it one came ashore about half a mile away from us. We watched it take a piece of whale blubber and retreat back onto the ice and then Marlowe's boss Nathaniel came out with Nigel Marven and a film crew, so we all met up a few hundreds metres away from the bear and watched it for about an hour and a half. After breakfast, Vicki, Gavin and I had another good look at a drake Spectacled Eider just off the beach with a group of the more numerous King Eiders, found a Pale-bellied Brant B.b. hrota, birded back out along Cake Eater Road where we found a 'bronzed' Common Grackle (probably the first for Barrow) and watched Pectoral Sandpipers doing their extraordinary breeding displays. There were also lots of Red and Red-necked Phalaropes in their breeding regalia out in the tundra pools providing a splash of colour to the brown tundra. The day rounded off a fantastic trip to a stunning part of the world where I took some 5000+ photos. In the evening we flew back to Anchorage, via Fairbanks, where the tour finished and Vicki and Gavin caught a 'red-eye' flight back to Seattle while I slept in preparation for the long journey home on Monday and Tuesday.

Tuesday 26th June

I got home this afternoon but didn't feel like a visit to the lake after some 26 hours of travelling without sleep. However, Mervyn Pearce texted me to say he'd seen 2 Common Sandpipers Actitis hypoleucos on the dam in the evening.

Wednesday 27th June [Overcast, warm and humid]

I paid a brief visit to the lake late this afternoon. Things have certainly changed over the last month, all that is except the water level. It doesn't look like we are set for a repeat of last years low water conditions unfortunately. I didn't see the Common Sandpipers Actitis hypoleucos, but did count 95 Canada Geese Branta canadensis and 20 Mute Swans Cygnus olor. I also saw an adult Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis. The marginal vegetation has blocked any viewing of the Top End and I couldn't get any close views of the Aythya flock as a result.

Mervyn Pearce saw a Common Tern Sterna hirundo at 1845 hrs which flew off east towards Chew.

Friday 29th June [Overcast and quite windy]

After a bad day with jet lag yesterday, I went down for another look this evening and saw a flock of gulls feeding in a field over at Rugmoor that contained 6 Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis, about 100 Lesser Black-backed Gulls Larus fuscus and 10 Herring Gulls Larus argentatus. There were about 500 Common Swifts Apus apus feeding over the lake, 88 Canada Geese Branta canadensis, the adult ♂ Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis in Long Bay and a ♂ Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus with at least one tiny juvenile on his back (1st brood at the lake, 2012).

Saturday 30th June [Sunshine and heavy showers]

Mervyn Pearce reported a Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos on the dam this evening.