Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Anchorage and the trip to St. Paul

Despite our rather late night, we got up early to go birding again with Martin's friend Dave. He very kindly picked us up at the hotel and we headed out for Chugach State Park, the largest state park in North America with 500,000 acres. Before we even got to the park, we had a great sighting. On the edge of town we saw a line of cars stopped along the access road to the highway. There in the middle of the road was a very pregnant Moose, in no hurry to go anywhere. We slowed as we passed and watched as she easily stepped over the guard rail and moved off. This was a deer you really wouldn't want to hit with a car! I added a life mammal, Snow-shoe Hare on our way up to park. I had ached to see one of these as a child, so I was very excited.

We arrived at the park and started up the trail to Flat Top Mountain. There was still a little snow around, but the temperature was very pleasant. We had singing Lincoln Sparrows along the path. I see many Lincoln Sparrows here every year, but I don't recall ever hearing them sing like they did there. Ruby-crowned Kinglets were also chiming in. I do hear them sing here, but that song is more like a whisper, where this was full out, top of the lungs shouting. Its amazing what hormones can do. There were also Golden-crowned Sparrows, Common and a single Hoary Redpoll and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows. Wilson's Snipes were winnowing all around us, another sound I have never heard.

Our main target was Willow Ptarmigan, a life bird for Dan, and a North American bird for me. I had seen Red Grouse in Scotland a couple of years ago, which is con-specific with Willow, though it doesn't turn white in the winter. Dave played a tape so we would know what to listen for. Finally we heard a bird call rather close to us. Dan was able to get on it and I saw the white and red bird fly up the hill. We were quite satisfied.

Our last stop before heading the airport was Hilltop Park to look for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpecker, along with Spruce Grouse. Our time was a bit limited, as our flight left at noon for St Paul. We walked a loop trail and Martin and I cut through the pines, but didn't see any of the three birds. We did hear a tantalizing call at one point and Dan saw a woodpecker fly out of a dense pine. The call sounded very much like a Black-backed, but we could never refind the bird. We decided to return when we came back to Anchorage.

We arrived at the airport and checked in for our flight to St. Paul. We were relieved to see the plane was a SAAB turbo-prop. Pen Air flies only prop planes and some of them do not have rest rooms. Luckily the SAAB does. I decided to celebrate with a cup of coffee! There was a group of 8 birders from Border Land Tours in AZ, led by Rick Taylo also flying in. We chatted a bit and waited for the plane to load. Finally it was time and we all squeezed on board.

The flight to St Paul is spectacular. We flew over vast ranges of snow covered mountains, volcanoes, glacier and finally the Bering Sea. The plane was fairly comfortable. Martin and I were lucky enough to get an exit row seat with the life rafts bundled up in front of us. If the plane ditched, we would have first dibs! Martin quickly found out that they frown on using the life rafts as an ottoman. (Luckily, he was the one that caught! I had just taken my feet down when the flight attendant walked by.)

As we approached St. Paul it became cloudy, something I expected, as I had heard that the weather is almost always cloudy and rainy at best. I anxiously watched for land as we descended through the cloud cover. The first glimpse of the island showed it to still have some snow cover on the hills, but most of the tundra was open. We landed on the new air strip very smoothly. When we unload the sun was sort of peaking out, which was a lot better than rain!

We were met by the head guide, Dylan as we got off the plane. The first thing I said was "Whats on the island????" He grinned and said a Gray Wagtail (extremely rare) and a breeding plumaged Ruff! I have only seen a Reeve, so a breeding plumaged male was very much wanted! We checked in to our rather spartan hotel, which is connected to the airport and immediately loaded onto the bus to start birding. Anticipation was high. The first bird of the trip was one of the ENORMOUS Gray-headed Rosy-finches found on the Pribs. It looked like the size of a pigeon to me!

Because of the time and the distance we could not try for both birds before dinner, which was rather regimented. (More on that later) We decided to try for the Ruff, as it was closer. We drove to the wetlands near Plovina Lake and piled out. We scanned the area where the Ruff had been earlier in the day, but had no luck. We did our first stomp around the wet land, but had little luck, only putting up Pin-tails. I did get a good look at a Common Teal, which is considered con-specific with Green-winged Teal, but is counted as a seperate species in Europe. This was a bird I had seen in England, but I was happy to get a North American one. I will talk more about these birds in a later blog.

We climbed back in the van and headed back to have dinner at the Trident Sea Food Processing Plant. as there is no restaurant on St. Paul. As we arrived, Cameron Cox, one of the other guides, who we happened to already know, ran up and said "I just found a Common Sandpiper!" He said the bird had flown up the hill behind us to the diesel tanks above the sea food plant. We piled back in the bus and drove up as quickly as we could on the winding road. We parked a little ways off and got out, only to see the bird fly back down the hill to the plant. Back in the van and back down the winding road we went. We got out again and this time we all got a look at this Eurasian bird, which bears a great resemblance to our Spotted Sandpiper. It even has the same flight pattern, just no spots. We were quite pleased and went in for dinner.

Dinner was an amazing surprise. The food was spectacular! We all finished and went back down to the bus, to go look for the wagtail and the Ruff. Cameron said the Ruff had been on Webster Lake near Northeast Point at the same time we had been looking for it. Unfortunately it was not there. Cameron had said that it was actively feeding and probably had taken off to fly north. I was not happy, but still had the wagtail to look forward to. We did get a Snowy Owl as a conselation prize near the lake.

We started down a rather narrow dirt road to the area where the wagtail had been seen that morning. The road was a bit wet from melting snow and was a little dodgey. I noticed what I thought was dust coming up from under the wheels. Then I realized it was too wet to be dust. Someone said "Do I smell smoke?" Dylan stopped the van and got out. Smoke was pouring out from under the front of the bus. This was not good. We looked under the front and some kind of liquid was pouring out from under the bus. This was even worse. We were several miles from the hotel and it was a very desolate spot.

We saw a car coming up the hill towards us. In it were two people from the island who were just out for a ride. Dylan stopped them, told them our situation and they said they would take him back for another van. He advised the group, which consisted of Martin, Dan, Lynn Barber from Fort Worth and myself, along with the 8 people from Border Land Tours. He said he would be back in about 45 minutes and gave us the choice to wait on the bus or start walking back to the airport. Martin and I and a few others decided to stay on the bus. The rest of the group said they would walk, as they could bird their way back. True to his word, Dylan was back with a van in 45 minutes. The group on the bus got the best seats. We picked up the walkers and went back to the hotel.

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