Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Unalaska, rare birds brighten winter days

Unalaska is experiencing an exceptional showing of unusual birds this winter, and some of them are causing quite a stir!
In late fall, migrating songbirds heading south from Arctic and subarctic regions strayed into the Aleutians, and some stayed well into December. Sharp-eyed residents got a chance to see Yellow, Wilson's and Townsend's Warblers, rare but not unheard of in Unalaska, and an Orange-crowned Warbler, which was a first for the Aleutians. In early November, an American robin, also rare in the Aleutians, appeared on Strawberry Hill, followed by a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (second Aleutian record) and two Golden-crowned Kinglets (first Aleutian record). Bright and spunky, the kinglets soon found the old Sitka spruce trees planted around town, enchanting everyone who got to see them.
Not to be outshined by birds from the east, species from the west are also showing up in Unalaska this winter. Bramblings are delightful little finches with warm orange and black markings, whose normal range is from Scandinavia to Eastern Russia. Occasionally seen in the western Aleutians, they are very rare and exciting to see here. A single female is still among the small flock of passerines (perching birds) near Town Creek, taking shelter in the salmonberry bushes and feasting on sunflower seeds offered by local residents.
During winter, our mainstay passerines are large flocks of Gray-crowned Rosy-finches and Snow Buntings. On very rare occasions McKay's Buntings show up in a flock, and look startlingly white compared to Snow Buntings. Rarely even seen as far south as the Pribilofs, McKay's Buntings breed on St. Matthew and St. Lawrence Islands and winter south to Nunivak. This winter, McKay's have strayed far to the south, as they occasionally do, and we had one here a couple of weeks ago. Also around town are the resident Song Sparrows, streaked brown over a soft gray, and the tiny Common Redpolls, with black chins and a crimson cap. Dark-eyed Juncos are a casual winter visitor; we usually see one or two every few years. This winter at least a dozen showed up and seem to have settled in for a while. They are easily recognized by their dark 'hoods,' white bellies and white outer tail feathers. We've also had at least three Golden-crowned Sparrows in with this mixed flock.

Spectacled eiders are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Greg Balough/USFWS

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