Thursday, December 12, 2013

North To Alaska! The Bird Rush is On! December 3 until……………

The title is not exactly that of Johnny Horton's popular song, “North to Alaska,” about the gold rush, originally recorded and released in 1960, but the circumstances are very similar if not almost identical!  I flew from Phoenix, Arizona to Anchorage on December 3, leaving at 11:55 am and arriving at about 6:20 pm. 

Landing in Anchorage, just after sunset
I had been in communication with birding friend Dave Sonnenborn, who was going to help me find the Dusky Thrush, which was close to his neighborhood.  I picked up a rental car, because Dave was not planning to spend the whole day looking for the Dusky Thrush.  Besides, I still needed Northern Goshawk, and needed a rental car to search.   Dave was helping by finding some potential locations for Northern Goshawk.

After picking up some dinner, I worked on updating my blog and got to sleep relatively early.  I got up early and finished a draft of my blog post about my visit to St. John’s, New Foundland.  At 8:50 am next morning, December 4, Dave texted me, “R u awake.”  Thus, started the day of our search.  We made arrangements for me meet at Dave’s house at 9:30 am to start the search.  I joined Dave in his vehicle, and he drove us to the best spot to look on Lord Baranoff Drive very close to Dave’s home.  It was quite cold about 12F and all the trees were covered with hoar frost.  We quickly found a mixed flock of American Robins and Bohemian Waxwings that were feeding on cherries but not the Mountain Ash fruit.  The flock was moving around a lot, and Dave decided to pursue the major part of the flock that flew away.  I stayed at the original location.  We would call each other if we found the Dusky Thrush.  Soon after Dave left, a more slender thrush flew toward a cherry tree along the street near where we parked but quickly turned and flew away, apparently when it saw me standing in the street.  That seemed very unlike the American Robins and quite skittish behavior.  I started scanning in the direction that the bird flew and found the Dusky Thrush sitting low in a tree along a nearby street behind the houses on Lord Baranoff.  The Dusky Thrush was visible just above a nearby house roof and was facing me showing the white center of the breast and belly and the dark streaks along the sides of the breast and belly.  I could not see the white supercilium, due to the distance and the position of the Dusky Thrush.   I called Dave, but as soon as I told him that I had the Dusky Thrush, it flew left and disappeared from view behind some houses and trees.   Just then John Puschock, Bill Sain and Scott Schuette arrived to help in the search.  Scott is the leader of St. Paul Tours, and I first met him on St. Paul Island this fall, where Scott found the first North American Common Redstart.  We all walked around the corner to St. Elias Street where I had seen the thrush sitting and flying.  John Puschock is the owner and leader of Zugunruhe Birding Tours, which ran the Attu trip that I took in May-June of this year.  I was planning to join John, Bill and Neil Hayward for a trip to Adak to try for the Whooper Swan.  We all watched and scanned the flock of robins and waxwings but could not find the Dusky Thrush.  Soon John, Bill and Scott left to drive around the area to look for the larger robin flock as did Dave and I.  Shortly, Dave got a phone call.  John, Bill and Scott had the Dusky Thrush on St. Elias.  Dave and I drove back to find them scanning the flock of American Robins, where we found the Dusky Thrush hidden as usual behind tree branches.  We stayed in the area enjoying the Dusky Thrush.  What a great new bird for the year!  I was able to get some documentary photos of this great bird.  See photos which show the white center of the breast and belly with dark streaking along the sides. Note the reddish brown or orange on the wings and the distinct white supercilium. 
Dusky Thrush,
being somewhat secretive as usual,
broad white supercilium, white breast and belly with dark chevron shaped streaking along sides 

Dusky Thrush in a cherry tree
relatively out in the open showing some of orange in wing

Dusky Thrush
After all people got to see it well, including a new arrival Aaron Bowman (not Lang, sorry to both!) a very active Alaskan Birder, who came with his young song in a carrier, the Dusky Thrush flew off, and we all went to Dave Sonnenborn’s house to recover from the early morning cold and have coffee.   Dave Sonnenborn gave me a location to look for Northern Goshawk off of Rabbitt Creek Road, taking Clarke Road to Honey Bear Lane.   There is a broad valley up the side of the mountain that can be watched and scanned for Northern Goshawk  from Honey Bear Lane.   I stopped at my hotel room to pick up my wet pants for some extra warmth and picked up some lunch on the way.  Rabbit Creek Road is south off of the Old Seward Highway and just north of Potter’s Marsh.  As I drove up Rabbitt Creek Road, my front wheel drive rental car started to slip on some hidden ice on the road surface.  However, I was able to make it up the side of the valley to an overlook spot on Clarke Road near some mailboxes and scanned and watched for a while, but found only a few Black-billed Magpies and two Pine Grosbeaks.    Then I moved further up the side of the valley to the entrance to Honey Bear Lane, which was too steep for me to drive with the ice and snow covered roads even with the stones applied to the surface for traction.  I stayed in the area until about 2:30 to 3:00 pm, when light freezing rain and sleet started to fall.  I left immediately, because it would not be safe to try to negotiate the snow and ice covered roads with freezing rain added to the mix.  I never found a Northern Goshawk.  However, that night I heard from Dave Sonnenborn that he took John, Bill and Scott up Arctic Valley Road to look for ptarmigan, and they found a Northern Goshawk on the way back down the road not too far up from the entrance to Arctic Valley Road.  Go figure!  That’s birding!

Thursday morning, December 6, I drove out to Arctic Valley Road to look for the Northern Goshawk that Dave, John, Bill and Scott had found yesterday. The roads were slippery but negotiable with slow careful driving.  I arrived at about 10:30 am and drove slowly due to the road conditions up Arctic Valley Road past the factory building on the left and up to the second and very large pull-off on the right.  I stopped and scanned frequently.  I drove from the entrance past the golf course, now covered with snow, up to this second pull-off twice but never found the Northern Goshawk.  I headed back to Anchorage to the Airport to catch my flight to Adak, but misjudged the time.  The roads were quite icy and a number of vehicles had slid off the road.  I needed to go slowly and needed to stop and fill my gas tank.   I arrived at the gate too late to check my bag to Adak, and carried the bag as a gate check bag.  I lost a few things in the security check, a bottle of rinse, some tooth paste and a knife.  The gate agent was careless and threw my wet pants in the trash.  However, I did make it on the flight to Adak, which was critical, because there are only two flights per week to and from Adak on Thursday and Sunday.  The cost of the flight and the lost time for my Big Year would be more expensive than the lost items.  The flight to Adak left at about 2:00 pm and we arrived at about 4:00 pm.              
Dusky Thrush is a Life Bird for the ABA area, number 812, and new for the year and raises my Big Year total to 709 + 2 (White-cheeked Pintail and Common Redstart).


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  2. Thanks for the comment. Are you referring to daily bird lists or the overall year list to be entered into eBird? I am not sure what the overall list would contribute to the data base. At the start of my Big Year, I decided not to enter daily lists into eBird due to the time it takes to do so. I had not started using eBird before my Big Year and did not feel I had the time to devote to learning how to use it during my Big Year. A Big Year is very intensive, making and carrying out plans for sites to visit at the right time to actually see or hear the birds, making travel and overnight accommodation arrangements, keeping track of the overall list, doing a blog and still having time to be in the field actually birding plus eating and sleeping. I am doing this Big Year for fun, and am trying to minimize the work involved.

    With regard to the Pine Bunting, are you referring to the Little Bunting in CA? I am counting the Little Bunting that I saw on Gambell. When I am in CA later this month, I will try to see this one, if there is time.