Pelagic Trip – 12/29/11

When the Admiral of the Atlantic, Brian Patteson, tells you that there’s a pretty good chance of seeing a Great Skua you gotta believe.  But by 1:45 PM I was plenty worried, especially after we passed through a huge feeding flock of gannets and gulls without breaking in the target bird.  Kate Sutherland, the Deck Boss, had been hard at work since 8:00 AM continuously chumming with chopped up fish to keep the seabirds following the Stormy Petrel II.

Deck Boss, Kate Sutherland Chumming (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

This creates commotion that attracts more interesting seabirds to the stern.  We did have two Black-capped Petrels and three Great Shearwaters but not a sign of a Skua.

I figured we were cooked.  We had less than three hours left and it just wasn’t destined to happen today.  But instead of moping or relaxing, I decided to bear down and scan for the remaining two hours.  Not more than five minutes after I began scanning, everything got noisy over the intercom and Brian cut the boat speed.  Keith yelled look up and low and behold a Great Skua flew right over the boat going behind us.

Great Skua Seen on 12/29/11 (Photo by Nathan Gatto)

After about a ¼ mile it banked and attacked a Herring Gull.  It turns out that young Ali Iyoob, a sixteen year-old birder from North Carolina had spotted the Great Skua as it came out of the sun flying with purpose directly towards the boat. Great job, Ali!

A Happy Ali Iyoob (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

There was again joyous celebration.  This story deserves more but its late and I’ve got a 6:00 AM flight to Toronto tomorrow morning.


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The Hooded Crane in Hiwassee NWR

The sky was still completely dark.  It was 6:50 AM and we were standing in the Philips 66 parking lot at the intersection of 58 and 60 in Cleveland, TN.  Bland Liz, Doug Koch and me. We were waiting for Tommie.  She was driving a lime green Prius so I figured we couldn’t miss her.  Tommie Rogers had kindly volunteered to lead us to the Hiwassee NWR observation deck in the dark.  As we opened the doors the calls of hundreds of Sandhill Cranes greeted us.  This is one of the true “Calls of the Wild”.  Put it in the same league as Wolf, Loon and Grizzly Bear.  There were several hundred Sandhills right in front of us at the bottom of the hill.  More began to fly in to the area in front of us, usually alone or in groups of two or three.  Birders began to shuffle in as well.  Lamarr Eddings, one of my blog readers had come to meet us.  Daniel Jacobson showed up as well. He’s number two on the Tennessee life state list, but WAY BEHIND number one.  Better pick it up a notch Dan!  By 8:15 AM it was a beautiful clear sunny winter morning.  Al of a sudden Tommie literally grabbed me and dragged me over to her telescope “Look in the scope!  Look in the scope!”.  I took one look and there it was.

Hooded Crane With Wings Out (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

A stunningly handsome crane indeed. And it was right in front of us!!  I yelled to Liz and Doug, “She’s got it! She’s got the Hooded Crane”. A whole lot of shaking and hugging ensued.  By 9:00 AM we were back in the car and heading east towards Cape Hatteras, 700 miles away.

Tommie Rogers and JWV Celebrating

"Bland" Liz Southworth, Doug Koch and JWV Celebrating

So I’m now at 742 species. Of course the Hooded Crane will need to be accepted by one of the state committees before the ABA Checklist Committee will accept it.  Until its been accepted or rejected I’ll keep it on my list as a provisional bird.   Of course I think that it’s a wild bird but I clearly have a stake in this decision.

Derb Carter has made a compelling case for the providence of the crane on Surfbirds. Here is the link:

What I will comment on is that recently I heard a disbeliever stating that it’ hard to explain how our Hooded Crane covered the distance between the Siberian breeding Sandhill Cranes and those Sandhill Cranes that winter in Hiwassee? Please let me present a logical explanation to that question.  We know that each fall Siberian breeding Sandhill Cranes pass through and stage at Jasper-Polaski southeast of Chicago.  One famous example is the family group of the Common Crane mated to the Sandhill Crane with two hybrid young.  This group was first seen in the fall at Delta Junction near Fairbanks, AK among a large flock of Sandhill Cranes returning from their breeding grounds in Asia.  The family group was later seen at the Jasper-Polaski staging area south east of Chicago.  In fact the same family group was relocated the following spring on the Platte River. Now Hiwassee NWR is only 550 miles as the crane flies to the southeast. The Sandhill Cranes that winter at Hiwassee breed in the upper Midwest. On their southbound migration they too stage at Jasper-Polaski.  It is not such a stretch of the imagination to picture this Hooded Crane migrating southeast with the Siberian Sandhill Cranes and staging at Jasper-Polaski then getting mixed into a flock of Hiwassee Sandhill Cranes and flying the relatively short distance to the Hiwassee wintering grounds.

Anyways tomorrow will be the last pelagic trip of the year. Stay tuned it should be a lot of fun.


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Full Chase Mode -All the Way To The Finish Line

Plans have changed.  I’m moving fast and I’ll stay that way through the rest of the year!  I might as well go out with guns blazing, right?  Right now I’m on one last crazyass chase with the Musketeers! Okay now that I’ve totally confused everyone here’s what’s happening.  Last night I received a call from Brian Patteson that he was postponing the pelagic trip yet another day-till Thursday.  That was a bit depressing and I wasn’t too excited about sitting around in the rain in Hatteras for two days.  My dilemma was solved when Doug Koch suggested that we drive to Tennessee and try for the Hooded Crane. That’s all the encouragement I needed.  Drive the 700 plus miles, see the crane tomorrow morning then drive back all the way to Hatteras to be in position for the Thursday pelagic trip.   It’s a Big Year right?  I can always sleep beginning next year.  Doug and I had breakfast in Buxton, NC with my Ohio birding buddies Jeff Wert, Jim McCarty and his son Bret, then headed west. Forty miles later and on a lark, we decided to give Bland Liz Southworth a call, “Hey Bland Liz!  Want to chase the Hooded Crane then join us for a possible Great Skua?”  She replied “Give me a couple of minutes boys to look at logistics and I’ll get back to you.”  Five minutes alter she called while in transit to Boston Logan Airport.  No moss grows under that lady, we are now picking her up in Chattanooga, TN at 9:00 PM this evening.  Dug and I stopped in Chapel Hill, NC to have lunch at Mama Dip’s Kitchen with Chris “The Hitman” Hitt.  Good Southern Cooking while Chris briefed us on the Hooded Crane.  Then we were off again.

And there’s more to this story.  I learned this morning that a Smew was found yesterday in Toronto in a harbor. I called Ron Pittiway and Jean Iron to get a current status of the Smew and low and behold Jean was looking at it as we spoke.  If the duck holds tomorrow, I’ll fly to Toronto from Norfolk, VA early Friday morning, hopefully nab the Smew. then still fly out Friday late afternoon to Phoenix where I’ll meet my brother, Bill.  We’ll drive to Lake Havasu and try for the Nutting’s Flycatcher on Saturday.  My map is now laid out in front of me and has become very clear. Try to stay with me folks cause I’m in “Full Chase Mode” and it’s a race to the finish line!

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Traveling to Hatteras, NC

It was enjoyable to share Christmas with Linda and friends, but now I’m in the air once again. Hatteras, NC is my destination and one last pelagic trip for 2011.  Its a quest for the Great Skua with the Admiral of the Atlantic, Brian Patteson.  Unfortunately, Brian has postponed the boat trip till Wednesday. The forecasted winds for Tuesday are too brisk and Wednesday is forecasted to be better.  This means that after the pelagic trip, I’ll have to scrub the Hooded Crane and fly directly from Norfolk to Phoenix  to chase the Nutting’s Flycatcher.  Stay tuned I’ll post again tomorrow.

I wish to thank all of you for your support.  Your comments are all inspirational.

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Merry Christmas

Tomorrow I journey east to Hatteras, NC. Today I would like to wish all of you a merry Christmas and enjoying the company of friends and family!

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Decision Point

Last night I made the toughest decision of my Big Year.  It was not made easily. I decided NOT to chase the Dusky Thrush in Anchorage.  Please let me explain.  The last several days on Adak have been rather uneventful.  I’ve scanned through the ducks at Clam Lagoon a dozen times hoping for a Smew, Common Pochard or Spot-billed Duck.  I’ve driven up to Andrew Lake at least ten times hoping against hope that the swans might be there, but I had little confidence in this.  I’ve also checked all of the small evergreen stands near Adak for finches or buntings. In fact on Wednesday, I was rewarded with a Pine Grosbeak, which is apparently a 1stsighting not only for Adak, but for the Central Aleutian Islands. I also found a Pine Siskin as well which is casual on Adak.

Pine Grosbeak on Adak (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

Heck, I would have been happy with just a Hawfinch. Then yesterday at 1:00 PM things got very interesting.  Isaac Helmericks called from work with two bits of news. One of his coworkers had just spotted twelve Whooper Swans flying over town headed south towards Finger Bay and the Dusky Thrush had been relocated in Anchorage.

I decided right then that if we saw the swans then I’d delay my flight out of Anchorage and try for the Dusky Thrush on Friday.  There was a chance I could parley these two additional year birds together with a Great Skua, Hooded Crane and Nutting’s Flycatcher and end the year at 746.  If I chose to skip Christmas altogether there was probably even time to add the Miami area White-cheeked Pintail currently being reported on e-bird as #747 (just to compare apples to apples with Sandy Komito’s White-cheeked Pintail in 1998).  Anyway Isaac rushed over, grabbed me and we sped off in his truck to franticly search Finger Bay and the surrounding waters…but no dice.  After I checked in with my luggage and with two hours to spare before my flight, I ventured out for a final hail Mary and searched everywhere for the swans one more time.

When I arrived in Anchorage I consulted with White Keys.  After several painful minutes, I decided to continue with my plans. So I’m on a plane bound for Anchorage where I’ll catch a red-eye to Seattle then a morning flight home to Denver.  I’ll celebrate Christmas with Linda and friends in Colorado, then leave Monday morning for Hatteras.  Seven days on Adak just sucked too much time out of the remainder of my Big Year.

I wish to thank Isaac and Crystal Helmericks (and cute little Rhianna) of Aleutian Outfitters for their hospiltality.

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Adak – Day 3 & 4 – 12/18/11 Thru 12/19/11

Yesterday we worked the lagoons and open fresh water hard for ducks and the Whooper Swans.  All we were able to turn up was a Tufted Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon and an American Green-winged Teal.  Isaac is very competent on his waterfowl identification.  He actually grew up on the Colville River Delta with waterfowl as pets.  Last night he showed me his photos of both the Tundra and Taiga Bean Geese that he’s seen on the island.  We also studied some of Isaac’s  photos of Common Pochard photos.  I’d have to say that Adak is now the best place in North America to search for Asian waterfowl.

Yesterday afternoon the FAA chartered a twin engine plane to send out both a technician and a certified weather monitor (he actually lives on Adak, but was off island in Anchorage.  Watching the plane taxi in on the runway was a happy sight for me.  I was happy to be leaving Adak, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving Adak empty handed.  Well, thinks have changed and I’m now stuck on Adak till Thursday afternoon.  I was pretty down when Isaac gave me the news this morning. But while discussing my situation with my brother Tom, he brightened up my day by reminding me that if I left Adak with zero birds, I’m a gonner anyways. He was right; no sense in crying over spilled milk.

This afternoon my mood brightened even more.  I finally was able to see a Whiskered Auklet. On Friday with the winds blowing out of the east and into Kuluk Bay, I was certain that I’d seen a dark auklet.  But it wasn’t possible to rule out Crested or Cassin’s Auklets, though Whiskered is certainly the default species here in Adak during the winter, in fact the only auklet that Isaac’s every seen in December or January.  Today the weather conditions were perfect, for sea watching.  The sun was behind my back, the waves in Kulak Bay were down and there was zero wind.  I was able to easily identify Common Murres and Pigeon Guillemots from almost twice the distance as was possible earlier in the week.  After about ½ an hour of scanning I saw a small black alcid way out and too far to ID.  Soon after that I was watching two flying Pigeon Guillemots going right when a flying Whiskered Auklet flew into the same field of view. Bingo!  Number 741.  Now to find those swans.

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Adak – Day 2 – 12/17/11

Yesterday, Isaac and I spent most of the day on ATVs searching for the Whooper Swans.

Ready to Ride (Photo by Tifiny Kalberg)

Friday it was extremely difficult to drive the road to Lake Andrew, the largest fresh water lake in the Aleutians, but on the ATVs we had no trouble making it.  There were good numbers of ducks on the lake as well as a Red-necked Grebe, but the swans weren’t to be found.  Isaac has seen them fly over town twice this winter and figures they’re moving back and forth between Andrew Lake and Lake Constance.  In fact he saw a group of five earlier in December at Lake Constance.  The trouble is that there is a good deal of snow on the ground and we knew it would now be impossible to climb over the pass on our ATVs. We’d have to hike several miles.  Actually, with Isaac leading the way and searching for the best path, we were able to drive the ATVs farther than Isaac thought on the trail towards Lake Constance, but the pass had too much snow to trudge through.

Isaac Helmericks (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

We were blocked in. We had driven 37 miles on the ATVs yesterday over all kinds of terrain, but had no swans to show for our efforts.  That’s the bad news.

I guess the good news is that I have extra time on Adak to explore other ways to reach Lake Constance.  Isaac will drive his snow mobile over the pass and scout Lake Constance.  If the swans are in we could launch a zodiac in Shagak Bay then motoe around the sheltered side of the island into Expedition Harbor.  Lake Constance would be a short hike from that harbor. We could also use the zodiac to get further out to search for Whiskered Auklet.  Extra time might allow us to find both target species.

Unfortunately, the reason we have this extra time is some more bad news.  There is a problem with the FAA automated weather monitor on Adak.  Alaska Airlines can’t send a plane to Adak until it’s fixed.  Earliest I could leave would be Monday, but possibly not till Thursday!  I’m stuck on Adak.  And the weather is perfect.

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Adak – Day 1 – 12/16/11

My flight arrived last night on schedule, which left us two hours to bird Adak.  Issac had seen a Merlin earlier in the day (rare for the Aleutian Islands) so we spent some time trying to relocate it without success. We did see three duck species –the Aleutian race of the Green-winged Teal, Greater Scaup and over ten Eurasian Wigeons.  There were Snow Buntings, Redpolls and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches as well.

The Aleutian Outfitters Lodge is surprisingly comfy compared to Gambel and St. Paul.  Crystal Helmericks is the lodge cook and the spaghetti dinner she prepared last night was tasty.  Some hearty oatmeal this morning and we were ready to go.

Isaac has been birding since he was a small boy growing up on a homestead in Northern Alaska on the Colville River Delta. It was easy to start a passion for birding when there were birds like Spectacled and King Eiders and Yellow billed loons nesting several hundred yards from his house.  Now he’s a bird guide on Adak, where Eurasian rarities are always a possibility.

This morning it was snowing.  As I understand it four days ago there wasn’t any snow on the ground, but now it was white with high drifts in some spots.  As we left, Isaac commented that this was indeed “extreme birding”.  Welcome to my world in 2011.  Even with snow, Isaac found a way to position the truck so we could scan the harbor and immediate ponds.  I was surprised when three Emperor Geese swam right by us.

Emperor Goose at Sweeper Cove in Adak, AK (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

This must be the easiest place in America to see and photograph this goose.  We ended the day with 275  Emperor Geese!  Anyway we eventually got stuck.

Stuck in Ice and Snow (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

We knew the road base was firm gravel so Isaac worked and worked to dig us out and eventually we popped out of this ice made rut.  In the process I managed to fall in to about 18” of water.

After drying our cloths and lunch, we ventured again outside.  The snow/rain had virtually stopped and the wind became insignificant.  We were able to scan with our scopes – 30 Marbled Murrelets was very cool. We had one probable Whiskered Auklet at a pretty far distance.  We hope to get better looks today.  We ended the day at Clam Lagoon where there were perhaps 500 ducks and another 150 Emperor Geese.  I was tired by the time we returned home, but we ended the day with 36 bird species. Dinner with home made biscuits, wild red salmon caught in Adak  and cherry pie sure hit the spot.  Tomorrow we ride ATVs to search for the Whooper Swans.  Just another walk in the park on this Big Year adventure?

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Mr. Whitekeys and the Dusky Thrush

Tick-tock, tick-tock.  Mr. Whitekeys’ clock seemed stuck at 9:25 1/2 AM.  I watched the second hand move, but damn if the minute hand didn’t seem frozen.

Mr. Whitekeys Spam Clock

I was restless. There was a Dusky Thrush out there in his neighborhood, but it was still way too dark to look for it.  All one could do is wait.  Mr. Whitekeys is a pretty funny guy. When I grabbed two eggs from his refrigerator this morning, one of them turned out to be a rubber egg. Maybe you noticed this humor from his clock as well.  The spam motif seems to be prevalent around his house and in his production of “Christmas in Spenard” playing at the Taproom in Anchorage. Last night I attended the production and had a fun time.  It’s a Satirical Alaskan Musical Comedy and was outrageously funny.

Cast From "Christmas in Spenard"

John Vanderpoel & Mr. Whitekeys

Nothing was funny about this morning however.  By 9:35 AM it was just light enough to venture outside so Keys and I headed out. He lives in the neighborhood where the Dusky Thrush has been feeding with a flock of up to 60 robins.  Anchorage’s strongest birders were out enforce this morning.  Trapper Dave had a nice sized flock of 25 Robins near the yellow house were it was seen yesterday along with two hundred Bohemian Waxwings.  Amazing about how things change.  In February, we worked awful hard to find Bo Waxwings in Duluth and we were proud of it.  Now they just were avian clutter, making it more difficult to find the Asian stray.

Today there was no Dusky Thrush.  We just ran out of time and I couldn’t miss my plane to Adak.  So now my plan is to work Anchorage all day on Monday on the backside of this trip.  It doesn’t make sense to charge off to Chattanooga till I have the thrush. I wish to thank Keys, Aleta and all the birders who helped this morning.  Hopefully Monday.

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