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Posts Tagged ‘birders’

Saturday 3 June 2017, week 3: Buldir Island, 22:52

The most geographically isolated island in the Aleutians. The most diverse seabird colony in the northern hemisphere. The westernmost home of bald eagles. The westernmost volcano in the Aleutians. All of these extremes are descriptors of Buldir, making it my most decorated summer home. From learning of its existence in 2010 until last year, working out here had been a dream of mine.

Being so far west, Buldir’s draw for many is the potential to see vagrant birds riding western winds from Asia. In that sense, it really is a shame that I’ve deprived birders of the chance to work on Buldir last summer and this year. If asked, I’d probably consider myself a birder for about a day or two of each year. Contrary to what one would think, many people in my field don’t consider themselves birders. Fellow field technicians have referred to our seasonal cohort as “bird professionals,” meaning we study and enjoy birds but aren’t necessarily going to grab our binoculars and jump in the car if a weather system is predicted to bring an unusual mixture of species to a nearby area.

This week I did change my tune and act like a birder for the sake of our bird list and Kevin and McKenzie, who are birders. On Wednesday I volunteered to wake up early for our third beach transect, which is where we walk along the wrack line and survey down to the water and about 50m inland for songbirds. Gray-crowned rosy finches, song sparrows, pacific wrens, and lapland longspurs are the typical birds whose visual or auditory presence we note as we navigate the boulder field and tall grass inland of North Bight Beach.

As I approached our creek crossing near a small inland marsh, I spotted a shorebird standing in plain view on a log. Since shorebirds are small and rather difficult to identify because of their slight differences in appearance, I wished I had the birders along. (My ornithology lab quizzes on species ID were more than a handful of years ago.) It didn’t look like the dunlin, least sandpipers, western sandpipers, or plover species that I’d come to recognize from counting birds in California, so I was at a loss.

Knowing there was a good chance it was a vagrant, I dedicated myself to trying to note the details of its appearance. Naturally I’d not pocketed my point and shoot camera for my little half hour walk. White breast, red below the eye, black legs, reddish hue, very thin white eye ring, black on the edges of the primaries. I even voiced these observations in the hopes they’d stick with me and enhance my mental picture.

Back in camp I pulled out our Sibley Guide to Birds and Nat Geo’s Birds of North America. As I paged through the shorebirds sections, nothing stood out as being close to my description. When Kevin and McKenzie entered our main cabin, I didn’t say anything for a little while, knowing my attempt to vocalize the description would sound vague and unhelpful. Birds of East Asia didn’t seem to have the right fit, and I was starting to give up hope that I’d find a close match. By this point I’d shared my birding news and given a few details, but nothing came to mind to the birders.

“Check out Rare Birds of North America. It has pretty good pictures,” suggested McKenzie.

Bingo. Upon searching through its shorebird section, I came across the little stint. Out of all the pictures I’d looked at, it seemed like the closest fit. Unfortunately the book also said “On w. and cen. Aleutians and Bering Sea islands, rare or very rare in fall, exceptional in spring.” Had I managed to notice and identify an exceptional sighting? It seemed unlikely to me.

Having piqued the interest of Kevin and McKenzie, I walked them to the area where I’d seen the mystery bird. Somehow I was the first to spot it on logs in that same marshy area, and Kevin took multiple shots of it with his DSLR camera. As we looked at it, McKenzie made comments that seemed to agree with my educated guess of little stint. Knowing that the birders couldn’t ID it at first glance made me feel better.

That evening we opened all the bird guides to compare Kevin’s photos to various sketches. Before the evening was through, we all agreed that a little stint had decided to visit us that day. Little stint are quite the world travelers; they breed on tundra from Scandinavia across Eurasia to northeast Russia and then winter in sub-Saharan Africa, tropical India, and southeast Asia. A visit to Buldir wasn’t out of the question, either, as sightings were reported by FWS techs in 1998, 2006, 2008, and 2009.

Being able to add a little stint to our rare bird list was exciting, but that wasn’t the bird of the week for me. On Tuesday McKenzie had radioed me to let me know there was a long-tailed duck hanging out with some harlequin ducks off Crested Point. Long-tailed ducks are my favorite!! Not only are they adorable, but their call is also cute and the one bird sound I’m happy to mimic. Sadly I did not see my duck when I searched the area that day.

However, I did see it on Thursday, and thoughts of long-tailed duck cuteness distracted me so much that I nearly fell over as I continued my walk down our treacherous boulder beach. Birds are pretty okay!

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Birding. For anyone familiar with the concept, it probably brings to mind stereotypical images of bespectacled young and old gripping their binoculars, scopes, and cameras for dear life as they search for the elusive bird in the tree, river, or marsh. Birders travel far and wide trying to catch that 5 second glimpse of a bird that enables them to put a check next to a name in their bird book.

That’s definitely not me. Yet ever since my second field job – for which I worked with black- and red-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, and least auklets here on St. George – various friends and family members have teased or referred to me as a ‘birder.’

At first I rather resolutely refuted the label. First off, I don’t have the eyes, ears, or memory for details to differentiate amongst some species. Secondly, I don’t keep a life list: a list of all the birds I’ve seen over the years. Nor do I get excited when I see a certain bird for the first time, or what birders would call ‘lifers.’ I don’t check eBird to find out what species have been sighted at my upcoming travel destinations or where I should go to see specific birds. Until I graduated from college and asked for a pair as a graduation gift, I didn’t even have my own pair of binoculars!

If I am a birder, I’m definitely at the beginning stages. Over the years I’ve worked with field technicians who cover the range from wildlife enthusiasts to moderate/intense birders. I consider myself part of the group some co-workers have named ‘bird professionals.’ While we think birds are pretty awesome to study, we don’t necessarily choose jobs based on the study species. For me, birds are part of the bigger picture of the grand experience. Sightings and photos are all great, but a scar from a bird is worth more than a check mark in a book.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a few things that make me acknowledge that perhaps after all these years, I’ve moved a little closer to the birding end of the scale.

  1. Just thinking about long-tailed ducks makes me smile! Their markings are adorable, and because it’s just so melodiously cute, their call is the only one I will randomly imitate. I got the Tutakoke crew to use it as a rallying cry in 2014, and a friend even woke me up with the call as a wonderful alarm clock on my final morning there last summer.
  2. The northern pintail who slept under my tent fly at Tutakoke in 2013 counts as my favorite neighbor of all time, which is why I may have slept in a 60+ year-old man’s tent a number of times in 2014. (Since the pintail didn’t pick my tent as a base, I had to go visit her new location while that tent’s occupant was out-of-state!) It’s not as weird as it sounds. Err – maybe it is.
  3. Ever since we’ve been on St. George this summer, I’ve had my eyes open for black brant. I spent 2 summers with them at Tutakoke, so they’re practically my summer family. When Laney called, “Brant!” from our room overlooking the waters of the Bering Sea, I ran to see a bird for the first time in my life. I ran for a bird of which I’ve held hundreds and seen thousands.
  4. I can sit in the least auklet colony of 100,000+ birds for hours without getting bored. Whether I’m looking for color bands on their legs or being entranced by all of the fly-bys, the antics of least auklets keep me entertained. Perhaps the best part is when a bird makes an abrupt landing on the rock “blind” and then either proceeds to chatter or jump up and fly when it realizes it has landed 2 feet from a human.

While normal life has its perks, the memories of living with birds for months make it balance out. Now pardon me while I go continue my summer-long hopeful lookout for long-tailed ducks.

*Sorry about the lack of pictures for the duration of summer. We have data-limited internet use.*

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