Sunday, December 22, 2013

Last Days on Adak, Saturday, December 8 through Sunday, December 9...plus!

With the Whooper Swan under our collective belts, Saturday morning we headed for the sea watch to try again for Whiskered Auklet.  Neil Hayward needs this bird for his Big Year and Bill Sain needs it for a lifer.  On the way to the sea watch near town, we stopped for a look at the feeder on the old Naval Air Station Administration building.  The Gray-crowned Rosy Finches have found the feeder as well as at least one of the huge Song Sparrows (Aleutian race) and a Snow Bunting or two.  On our way to and from the feeder, we see another flock of Rock Ptarmigans in town.  I think back to my spring trip to Attu with John Puschock, where we worked hard to find Rock Ptarmigan, and finally found one from a distance through telescopes up on the mountain by the old Attour lower base on our last full day there.  Here in Adak, Rock Ptarmigans are as common as barnyard chickens in the rural areas of the lower 48.  We headed for a nearby spot to scan for Whiskered Auklets on Kuluk Bay.  As usual on Adak, it was windy.  John parked the vehicle at an angle to provide some cover for us from the wind.  Soon, John found a Whiskered Auklet, and got Neil over to look at the bird in his scope.  And then Bill Sain got his chance to look also.  Yesterday, I had difficulty finding the birds that were being seen from high up on the sea cliffs north of town.  Fortunately, there was a small flock of White-winged Scoters out from us that provided a reference point to find the Whiskered Auklet.  I eventually got on the bird in my telescope.  I did not look in John's telescope, because I had seen and photographed Whiskered Auklets from the boat on the Attu Trip.  On that trip we had seen hundreds, probably thousands, of Whiskered Auklets and at close range.  Therefore, I was not going to get in the way of Neil getting his bird and Bill Sain getting his lifer.  My telescope was difficult to share, because, the foot had got broken off in an auto accident, and I did not have time to get the telescope fixed before my Big Year.  I have been using it hand held on my tripod all year.  It works pretty well at lower power (20X) but it is tough when higher power is needed or in the wind.  I got good enough views of the Whiskered Auklet to be sure of the identification but did not see it when the group got the best views after it flew in closer and dove giving good views of the white on the lower belly and vent, the distinguishing field mark to separate it from Crested Auklet.  My hands were cold, a first for me on Adak, and I was sitting in the car to get out of the wind and warm them, when the Whiskered Auklet provided the best views.  Fortunately, I did not need that better view to add this bird for the year.  There were high fives all around.  It was good to see the Neil's relief in getting this bird, given the disappointment of yesterday's sea watch.  Looking for Whiskered Auklet from land here at Adak can be really tough.  I know, because I tried in 2005, and failed, never getting a satisfactory look.

With the Whiskered Auklet under our belts, we planned to try for other rarities that might be on the island, such as the previously mentioned Smew and Falcated Duck as well as Spot-billed Duck.  A Smew had been shot by a hunter before we arrived, and Neil and Bill were hoping for another to show up.  John and I saw two Smew on Attu this year.  Spot-billed Duck has appeared on Adak in the past.  Also, we were hoping that the new feeder at the administration building, freshly scattered seed at several trees in Adak, and the fresh seed at the feeding trays in Adak Memorial Forest would attract some new birds like Hawfinch or Bullfinch.  Consequently we planned to visit all the ponds and feeding locations.  First, John suggested that we check the nearby jetty, where we found nearby Crested Auklet as well as two Pigeon Guillemots in winter plumage.  See photo of Crested Auklet below.
Crested Auklet
John also wanted to try for better photos of the Whooper Swans.  Consequently we went to Haven Lake again but this time approached the lake from the south end.  The Whooper Swans were still there.  See photo.
Whooper Swan, adult with two cygnets
Our stay on Adak was not without issues.  The toilets in the house got plugged almost immediately upon our arrival.  John Puschock and I had used the toilets, and unfortunately Neil Hayward was next, and the toilets would no longer drain.  It also affected the shower.  We were without shower and toilets in the house for our stay.  I suspect a partial blockage in the main drain line, such that the pipe can fill up and then drain slowly.  I had a similar problem in my house that required replacement of the sewer lateral outside the house.  We tried to unplug the toilet with a plunger but made it worse, because it backed up into the shower.  This house had similar problems before; therefore, we were not the cause.  We were able to use an outside toilet at the Mexican Restaurant, which required driving there, taking a flashlight and parking the car by the window with headlights on to be able to see while inside.  This outside toilet was part of the building, but separated from the building by a hallway and not locked.  When we told the restaurant owner of our plight on our first night there for dinner, he told us that we could use this toilet.

On Saturday afternoon, John needed to stop by the house briefly.  We found that the manager of the house had visited and tried chemical drain cleaner, but had not unblocked the drain line.  On our way back out, I got this photo of a Rock Ptarmigan sitting on a house roof, not exactly a partridge in a pear tree.  See photo below.
Rock Ptarmigan
Partridge on an Adak Roof
Almost immediately after I got the photo, John accelerated the car, having seen something flying at the feeder by the administration building, surprising everyone.   Above the ensuing commotion of everyone asking at once what's going on, what, where, etc., I heard John say/shout "Accipiter, shouldn't be one here!"  We flew down the road to the building.  On the way, John told everyone with a camera to get them ready.  John had seen the hawk fly out from the vicinity of the tree with the feeder and fly around the corner.  We parked and got out cameras and binoculars ready.  As we approached the corner, the hawk took off.  As it flew up against the bright sky, I could see barring on the breast of an apparent accipiter, rounded wings and long tail, that was rather large and long-tailed.  the back-lighting was such that the barring on the under-parts looked grayish, but later looked more brown.  The accipiter was carrying what appeared to be a Rosy-Finch, and flew away alternately flapping and gliding disappearing behind a distant building and did not reappear on the other side.  It was a very long tailed accipiter, appearing to be bigger than a Sharp-shipped Hawk but perhaps not as bulky as a Cooper's Hawk, and John thought that it could be one of the species of Sparrowhawk.  John, Neil and I, walked to the building and carefully walked around the side.  Suddenly, I saw the accipiter take off from the ground and shouted "It's flying!", and was still carrying its prey, showing its gray upper parts, back, wings and a gray long tail with darker (black?) bands.   The accipiter flew off in the distance and disappeared from our view obscured by the building.  We hurried, John ran, back around the building to try for distant views and possibly photos, but the accipiter had completely vanished.  Meanwhile, Bill had driven the car from the feeder tree by the administration building to our location.  We walked around searching the area without any success in finding the bird until John shouted "Here it comes!".  The accipiter was flying from the vicinity of a bluff and flew almost right over us but quite high.  I took a lot of photographs, none very good, and managed only profile shots due to the extreme back-lighting from the sky.  The accipiter then circled and soared away toward the south and disappeared in the vicinity of the quarry next to Lake Leone.  We searched for but did not find the accipiter again this day, and finally had a chance to catch our collective breaths after an exciting hour or so provided by this accipiter.  Neil reminded us several times that bringing the feeder and seed worked.  In other words, we chummed in an accipiter!

We kept checking until dark, thinking that we would find the roosting spot for this accipiter.  It was thought that it might roost in the feeder tree or in another tree within the abandoned houses of Adak where we had also spread seed.  We checked that tree also, but could not find the bird again.  When it was too dark, we headed back to the house to download photos and try to lock down the identification of this accipiter.  John's photos are better than mine.  He took them in raw mode while I have been using jpeg mode.  Consequently, he had more latitude in Adobe Photoshop to bring out the features of the accipiter under back-lighting conditions.  John contacted Isaac Helmericks, Scott Schuette and Dave Sonnenborn to help on looking up identification of the different species of Sparrowhawk possible, maybe Levant's, likely Chinese, Japanese and Eurasian.  Neil Hayward had a good European Field Guide with him which helped.  Below are two of John's photos and a few of mine.
 
Accipiter with prey, apparent Rosy-Finch
Note bulge in secondaries
John Puschock photos


Accipiter in profile, 5 to 6 "fingers" in primaries
Accipiter in profile
note swollen hips (wider than tail) 
Additional photos can be found at Zugunruhe Birding Tours at this link http://www.zbirdtours.com/photos/adak_accipiter.htm.  Since these observations and photos, I looked on the internet for help on identification.  Levant's Sparrow Hawk and Chinese Sparrowhawk usually show only four "fingers" in the primaries, and Japanese Sparrowhawk shows four to five, but our accipiter shows five to six.  Eurasian Sparrowhawk shows five to six "fingers."  See my first profile photo and John Puschock's second photo, both above.  Chinese Sparrowhawk adults have thick black primary tips, not evident in John's photos, which also suggest an adult due to apparent brownish barring. Japanese Sparrowhawks often show body rocking from side to side during rapid wing action to accelerate.  Eurasian Sparrowhawk flies with several rapid wing beats followed by glide without obvious body rocking.  Eurasian Sparrowhawk often shows an obvious bulge in the secondaries and swollen hips (apparently the expansion of the body where the tail meets the back edge of the wing where the legs are attached to the body).  Our accipiter showed strong steady flight with no body rocking during flaps to accelerate even while carrying its prey, suggesting that it was not a Japanese Sparrowhawk.  Our accipiter shows an obvious bulge in the secondaries and shows the swollen hips, if I am understanding that term correctly.  I think that the above features for our accipiter are consistent with Eurasian Sparrowhawk.  However, I am not expert.  Hopefully, other experts agree.  The above information about identification was found on www.BirdsKorea.org/Birds/Identification/ID_Notes/BK-ID-Migratory-Raptors/shtml.

Sunday, our last day on Adak, we searched for the Sparrowhawk, visited the many ponds and lakes on Adak looking for rare waterfowl and visited the feeder locations.  We checked the jetty again, this time finding two Crested Auklets and some nearby Black Scoters.  The drake Black Scoters were beautiful.  In Ohio, I do not see drake Black Scoter, very often.  They are more common in the winter on the eastern seacoast in the lower 48 but not in Ohio, for me, at least.  See photos below.
Black Scoters,
female with white face, drake with orange knob on bill
Black Scoter, female and male
Rock Ptarmigans continued to be everywhere and a few were very cooperative.  See photo below.
Rock Ptarmigan, male with dark eye-line
We checked the feeder trees and found lots of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches.  See photo below taken at the old administration building.  (Isaac Sanchez, where are you!  My friend Isaac still needs a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch for his photo Big Year, as I write this post.)
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
eating seed at administration building
While we were checking some trees near the elementary school, I found the Whooper Swans flying over, completing a sighting for three straight days on Adak.  See photo below.    
Whooper Swans, flying
Later we found the swans on Haven Lake.  The scenery on Adak is amazing.  Below is a photo of snow covered Mount Moffett, 3,924 feet elevation, the highest peak on Adak Island. 
Mount Moffett
There are remnants of life on the Navy Base with many deteriorating buildings.  See photo below of a building which was apparently part of the recreation center along Andrew Lake. 
Deteriorating Building, part of recreation complex along Andrew Lake
Buildings are also falling apart in the city of Adak.  It appears that when the windows get broken on the windward side, the next strong storms blow out the walls on the leeward side.  That is my theory.  See photos below.
Blown out building
 
 
Abandoned McDonald's
No long lines here!
Close to or shortly after noon, Neil, John and Bill started getting alerts about our scheduled departure flight at 5:15 pm on Sunday.  There were mechanical problems with the plane leaving from Anchorage, and our departure was being delayed.  These continued throughout the afternoon, raising our suspense levels about whether or not we would get off of Adak.  There are two flights to Adak and back to Anchorage on Thursday and Sunday.  If our flight was cancelled, we would need to stay until Thursday without toilet facilities and showers.   Meanwhile, we continued searching for the Sparrowhawk.  At the tree within the city where we had scattered seeds, Neil shouted, "Hey, what's that with the white rump?".  He was hoping that it was a Bullfinch, but it was only a Brambling, a very good bird for this time of year in Adak.  Both Neil and I had seen Brambling before in British Colombia, and I saw many more on Attu.  Not a new bird for the year, but a good one nonetheless. 
Brambling in a spruce tree
Soon after finding the Brambling, John and Neil shouted "Hawk!" as the Sparrowhawk shot out from behind a nearby building and disappeared behind buildings to the right.  John, Neil and Bill got good looks at the brownish barring on the under-parts.  I missed this sighting, because I was checking photos on my camera.  Bill and I got out to search the area and John and Neil drove around looking for the hawk.  However, it was not to be.  That was to be our last sighting of the hawk.  Soon the alerts stated that the flight was cancelled. John had predicted this, but he had never been stranded on Adak.  John drove us to the airport to find out the expected bad news.  This time we were lucky.  The flight was rescheduled for tomorrow, Monday, morning at about 9:30 am.  John, Neil and Bill had connecting flights that needed to be changed.  I was planning on a search for Northern Goshawk in Anchorage and then head to Nome to try for McKay's Bunting.  I had not made connecting flight reservations.  We were very lucky to be there when there were a lot of hunters on the island trying for caribou.  There were apparently more hunters trying to get to Adak and quite a few who were ready to leave.  We headed back to the house thankful for the rescheduled flight, and then out to find dinner.  The Mexican Restaurant was closed on Sunday, which we found out on arrival.  We headed to the ASBAG (Alaska Sports Bar and Grill), the only other restaurant in town, for hopefully, our last dinner on Adak, for this visit.  After dinner, we returned to the house to relax and prepare for our rescheduled departure.
Jay, studying Adak History--Really?
Actually, relaxing.  No, sleeping again!
photo by Neil Hayward
We were instructed to drop off our checked bags early next morning and get our boarding passes.  Our plans were to pack our bags either Sunday night or very early Monday morning, check for the Sparrowhawk at the two nearby locations and head for the airport.  I recall that there was another alert about a delay until about 10:30 am.  That alert caused a few heart palpitations!  We checked the feeder location and the tree in the abandoned section of the city, but did not find the Sparrowhawk.  John scattered most of the remaining seed at these locations, leaving some in a bag for me to take along to Nome in my search for McKay's Bunting.
 
Finally, we were on the plane and leaving Adak.  I felt relief but also some sadness for the end of a really great trip with John again after Attu, with Neil again and Bill.  I got to see some great birds, and had a lot of fun and a great time with good people, great birding companions.
Last view of Adak from plane
Neil and Jay plotting
Neil drawing map of feeder location in Nome
Photo by Bill Sain
We arrived in Anchorage at about 2:30 pm.  We said our goodbyes to each other, for this time, at least.  It is likely that we will meet again on the birding trails.  I quickly rented a car and headed out to Arctic Valley Road to try for Northern Goshawk with the remaining light.  More later.
 
Adak provided Whooper Swan, new for the year, an excellent bird.  The Eurasian Sparrowhawk is a new provisional.  As stated in the previous post for Adak, the total is now 710 with 3 provisional (Common Redstart, White-cheeked Pintail, and now Eurasian Sparrowhawk).
 
 


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