Through the Fog
For birders, life up here on St. Lawrence Island revolves around the weather. The daily talk always includes the weather, both here and across the Bering Strait as well as a few select locales in the Lower 48. Words like millibars, dew point, westerlies, and marine layer are common breakfast talk, as people speculate what forecast is most accurate. The truth is, no matter what the forecast says people still go birding. When it's too foggy to bird, people talk about birds, their lists, and the weather- don't forget the weather!
I feel out of my league most days up here. I'm surrounded by an elite group of birders whose decades of birding experience spans at least twice my own age. Some reminisce about seeing a Bachman's Warbler when younger, others revel in the "glory days" of their dozens of visits to Attu. At least I can hold my own in a conversation about Attu birds, having been there earlier this year. Most of the time I just listen.
I've learned a lot being surrounded by such serious birders. I make mistakes sometimes, calling out then wrong bird name or a mid-identifying an alcid flying directly at us on the morning seawatch. It's hard to do in front of people who have seen these birds for decades, and I myself only having spotted them for the first time this year. For much of my life I've been looked to for expertise on birds, but now I turn to others and glean their knowledge. It's quite humbling and I'm learning a lot through quiet observation. I'm learning about what qualities of a birder I want to emulate and which ones I don't. There's good examples of each here. Sometimes I just keep my mouth shut and let somebody else spot the bird after I've seen it and made my own notes mentally, learning from the ID discussion that ensues.
Recently the Asian rarities have been almost non-existent, with the exception of two Siberian Accentors that showed up during a brief west wind. That was a life bird for me, and one I've wanted to see since the Rare Birds of North America came out with an Accentor on the cover. In January, the same species was seen and chased by the other big year birders in British Columbia, while I was near the other International border. Like many other birds this year, I'd swallowed the pill of acceptance that I wouldn't see one this year. Naturally, I added this unexpected bird to my list, happy to actually see something on Gambell that hours before had been in Russia, flying "back in time" from the future to grace us on this side of the international date line, with its presence.
With less distractions, I've started to really look at the common birds with more discernment. I have been noticing subtle differences in Snow Bunting plumages, especially in female and first year birds. It seems like this complex is poorly understood, and this region of the world is certainly close to breeding populations of both species, and hybrids are easily overlooked especially by birders who are only looking for a rare Asian bird they still covet for their life list.
"Its still too early for McKays" I hear frequently from the resident expert and birding guru, Paul Lehman when I look hard at Snow Bunting photos. Laura Keene and I still need McKay's Bunting, but I'm not interested in counting a hybrid or confusing juvenile bird for my lifer McKays. I want to learn Snow Buntings well enough so when I see a McKays it will be obvious, even if it is a juvenile or female. There's no telling what may arrive first. I also am trying to take a stab at the birds that others motor past without a second look. I'm photographing several Snow Buntings each day that look different than what the Sibley Guide to birders illustrates (Sibley states there's a high degree of variability but the illustrations fall short of the birds I'm seeing), Maybe I should take a hint and forget about it... That could be the easy lesson they're trying to teach me! As long as birding is slow, I have to work and improve my skills at something, and learning to "shrug and forget" is a skill I've mastered already on the hybrid gulls of Gambell. That will make a great blog post for when I can upload photos.
Yesterday morning's peregrinations floated through my head as I cruised down the beach on an ATV, flushing droves of Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Should I leave Gambell and spend money birding elsewhere? Is this really turning out to be a bad fall, with nothing showing up? The pessimism is tangible. At meal times I sit at a fold-out table, eating my ramen with real beef jerky for seasoning and listen to others bemoan the lack of birds here. Being my first time, the bar isn't set very high. I'd be happy with a Steller's Eider. I understand more now than earlier this year how variable birds can be. Sometimes you don't see them. It's a fact of life. And right now we are just not seeing them, and that's ok with me. I'll plug away at my interviews and keep studying snow buntings. All all I know, is the M&Ms in trail mix make everything better.
Reflections on Pace and Place
The recent hurricane that blew rare seabirds to Arizona has been quite the discussion topic recently, as some of those birds would be "lifers" for several birders, or "state birds" at least. The magnitude of this event has been amplified since we haven't seen anything spectacular up here, several people lament not being in Arizona this week. However, it seems to me that there are always birds that one can't chase- it's a fact of birding. Especially a storm petrel on a sewage pond, or any tubenose stranded inland. I'm well-learned at this point of the year of not dwelling on the bird you can't chase- there's been dozens of them. That's what separates Olaf and John from me. I can't chase a Yellow-legged gull in Newfoundland or a Common Pochard in Kodiak. I'm watching the "listers" lists grow along with everyone else as national newspapers pick up on the competition. My list continues to grow as well, but at a much slower pace, which is ok. I've seen nearly all the common birds in North America, along with a healthy dose of rarities- more than some people see in a lifetime! I'm still impressed when people tell me they've seen 500 birds or 700 birds in their life- that's a huge accomplishment! I can relate to people who have traveled across the continent to visit the diverse ecosystems and far-flung corners of the country; I've visited most of those locations myself. The magnitude of what I've accomplished this year begins to dawn on me when I flip through a bird book and each page brings a specific memory of seeing that bird- who I saw it with or what stage of my year I was in when it was encountered. Most importantly I've spent time with a wide variety of people who all care about birds in their own way. The insights I've gained through my interviews have helped me immensely as a birder. I've accumulated a vast collection of stories and experiences, words of wisdom and advice, which I'm spending the slow hours reviewing, transcribing, and editing. Instead of dozens of layovers, hundreds of nights in hotels, and a sizable chunk withdrawn from a bank account, I have a story. I have an enriched year full of experiences, new friends, and life lessons. Like the ending of "The Big Year" film, I've already won. And it's only September! Weather, a lack of Asian birds, or the attitude of others can't affect my year. I'll go to bed tonight grateful, and embrace the work needed to have a great day tomorrow.