Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Best Birds of St. Paul Island, 2012

Last summer (2012) I had the privilege of working as a guide on St. Paul Island, Alaska, with Scott Schuette and Doug Gochfeld.  St. Paul Island is one of the Pribilof Islands, a small group in the middle of the Bering Sea.  Its unique geographic location makes it a famous birding destination: it is slightly west of the easternmost tip of Russia, and so it frequently gets old-world vagrants.  Plus, it is a great spot to see some of the endemic Bering Sea species like Least Auklets, Crested Auklets, and Red-legged Kittiwakes.

Today, I want to show you the ten best birds of my 2012 season on the island.  There are many ways to define the "best" birds.  This is not a science.  The ranking here is strictly based on how much I enjoyed seeing them.  That is of course strongly affected by rarity, but these are not necessarily the ten rarest birds.

10. Wood Sandpiper.  This species is major rarity anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, but annual in small numbers at St. Paul.  I saw up to three individuals in a day, and photographed both juveniles (like this one) and an adult.

This juvenile Wood Sandpiper paused in Town Marsh on St. Paul Island while trying to find its way to Australia or southeast Asia. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

9. Gray-tailed Tattler.  Like the Wood Sandpiper, this species is annual on St. Paul but very rare in the contiguous 48: a bird in Massachusetts last fall was only the third North American record away from Alaska.  We had multiple sightings of this species in their fall migration, up to two in a day.   

This adult Gray-tailed Tattler was photographed on the sandy beach on the north side of the island, probably the first land it had seen since leaving Siberia on its way south. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

8. Little Stint.  Also rare in the contiguous 48, with total records probably around 50 sightings, and less than annual on St. Paul.  We had up to two individuals at a time on the island last year.

This juvenile Little Stint (at front right) joined a few juvenile Western Sandpipers to snack in the mudflats on St. Paul as it was headed south. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

7. Hawfinch.  This was high on my list of dream birds when I was preparing for my summer in the Pribilofs.  This bird, first spotted on May 23rd and still present a week later when our access to the area where the bird was found was closed for the fur seal breeding season, was the 10th record for the Pribilof Islands.  There are no North American records of this species outside of Alaska, and it is less than annual in Alaska.

This Hawfinch, with dirt on its bill from picking at seeds in the grass, is a Eurasian relative of our Evening Grosbeak. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

6. Tundra Bean-Goose.  This species is "casual" (less than annual) in Alaska, and unrecorded elsewhere in North America.  Many earlier records of "Bean Goose"from Alaska had to remain unidentified when the species was split into the Tundra Bean-Goose and Taiga Bean-Goose.  This was an exciting find as our first real Asian rarity of the season, on May 12th.

After we accidentally flushed this Tundra Bean-Goose from a small melt pond, I was afraid we wouldn't see it again.  A few minutes later, it circled back past us and I was able to take a few photos, including this one.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

5. Terek Sandpiper.  Another of my dream birds before arriving on the island, this fall migrant hung around for several days and pleased many visiting birders.  This species is named for the Terek River where it was first discovered, a tributary of the Caspian Sea.

I love the unique head shape and upturned bill of this Terek Sandpiper.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

4. Eurasian Bullfinch.  Wow, what a charmer!  This adult male was found coming to some seed spread by a local resident between houses in the center of town.  Imagine having this on your yard list in North America!  This was the first spring record for the Pribilofs, but there had been a handful of fall records.

The bold and beautiful male Eurasian Bullfinch, peeking up from a meal of millet.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

3. Dark-sided Flycatcher.  Flycatchers in general are among my favorite groups of birds, pushing this drab juvenile into the top three.  This was the seventh of this species reported from the Pribilof Islands.

This juvenile Dark-sided Flycatcher probably found plenty of bugs in the leeward side of an old volcanic cone on St. Paul.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

2. White-tailed Eagle.  This Asian counterpart to North America's Bald Eagle was first found early in the season and continued, off and on, for the rest of the year.  It would sometimes go missing for weeks at a time, and we suspected it might be moving between the Pribilof Islands.  It was frustrating at times because it never seemed to develop much of a pattern, making it hard to track down, but it was thrilling any time it happened to fly past as it hunted around the island.  This was the first time this species had been seen in the Pribilofs.

White-tailed Eagle soaring over St. Paul Island. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

1. Pin-tailed Snipe.  Easily the rarest bird, this was our only Code 5 bird (five or fewer North American records), and this was the fifth North American record.  The previous four records were all from Attu Island, at the western end of the Aleutians.  Attu is far enough west to be in the eastern hemisphere, so including one record from a remote part of the Hawaiian Islands, this was the second record for the western hemisphere.  This photo is about the best I could manage, but fortunately Doug was able to take some better ones!

Out-of-focus Pin-tailed Snipe flushing from the tundra of St. Paul Island (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)


  1. Wow, what an awesome place for birding. Wonderful bird sightings and photos. My favorites are the Hawfinch and the pretty Bullfinch! Great post!

  2. What fun to see all of these different birds! Thanks so much for taking the time to put this post together.

  3. Thanks! It was quite an experience. I recommend every birder make a trip there some day!

  4. Excellent post! It is enjoyable to read about your encounters with birds that I am not very familiar with.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Wow! Great posting! My husband and I are going to St-Paul Island at the end of July. Are you still guiding there? Do you have a list of top bird for the end of July. Do you know if e-bird has any report for that area. I checked e-bird but the location does not seem to return any data or report? Thanks

  7. I'm not guiding there anymore, but there are still great guides there every year. They are also very diligent about entering lots of great data into eBird. You should be able to find very complete data by searching eBird's Hotspot Explorer for "St. Paul Island" and then use the general island hotspot, as that's where most of the data goes. (There are other smaller hotspots on the island, but they're not used that much.)