July 17, 2020
MY MOST EXCITING TOUR DISCOVERY: SHOREBIRD MAGIC UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN
By Kevin J. Zimmer
Every international tour leader is accustomed to fielding the question, “Where is your favorite place to lead tours?” It’s a natural question to ask, and a difficult one to answer, but for at least the past 20+ years, my stock response goes something like this: “From a purely birding perspective, there’s no country that I find more interesting than Brazil. But, as an all-around natural history experience, East Africa is nearly impossible to beat. And, all of that being said, year in and year out, there’s no place I enjoy guiding tours to more than Alaska.” Having guided somewhere in the vicinity of 100+ different Alaska tours or tour segments over a span of 34 years, I’ve had my share of unexpected and exciting discoveries involving avian vagrants of Asiatic origin, but none could hold a candle to the events of June 27, 1993.
We were well above the Arctic Circle, winding down the last 24 hours of the Barrow Extension to the Grand Alaska tour. The only Barrow specialty bird we were missing was Spectacled Eider, probably the “Most Wanted Bird” for everyone in the group. The possibility of missing it was weighing heavily on me. We had covered most of the very few roads crisscrossing the Barrow tundra and hugging the coastline of the Chukchi Sea, although we had yet to visit my most reliable spot for “Specs,” which was all of the way at the end of the 10-mile-long Gas Well Road. The problem confronting us was that the near end of that road was a muddy mess, impassable by any vehicle without four-wheel-drive, which meant we couldn't get anywhere near the end of the road in the old school bus that we were using for transportation.
Luckily, during lunch on that last day, I met a Croatian immigrant named “Frank” who owned a Humvee, which he was using to run "tundra tours" [As an aside, the improbability of meeting a Humvee-owning Croatian tour guide, while dining in the northernmost Mexican restaurant on the continent, in the middle of a native Iñupiat whaling community, continues to astound me 27 years later!] I asked Frank if the Hummer could make it through the giant mudhole at the start of the Gas Well Road, and he said "no problem." I then asked how much he would charge to take people out to the end of the road to look for Spectacled Eider. He quoted a price of $25/person. So, I went back to my group, told them that the best spot for Spectacled Eider was reachable by Humvee, and that I was willing to go out there to scout and see if there were any Spec Eiders at the end of the road, and if there were, I would escort people out in the Hummer, provided they were willing to pay the $25/person fee. Everyone was up for that. The next logistical hurdle was that we could only fit 3 people (besides me and Frank) in the Hummer at one time, and there were 21 participants in the group. The only fair solution seemed to be to establish a lottery. So, I numbered 21 pieces of paper, put them in a hat, and had people draw numbers to establish the order. The first 3 people joined me for the initial scouting excursion. Sure enough, I found a drake Spectacled Eider at the end of the road, and that started a series of excursions to chase it, each with 3 participants. It was essentially 30 miles roundtrip from the hotel to the end of the road and back, so this adventure took most of the late afternoon and evening. The bulk of the group hung out at the hotel and/or restaurant while Frank and I shuttled back-and-forth all evening long.
Meanwhile, the woman who drew #21 in the lottery wasn't feeling optimistic about the eider staying put, so she asked me if I minded if she looked around for another 4WD vehicle to rent (in those days, there was no commercial car rental in Barrow). With the help of the hotel manager, she found someone to rent her a Chevy Blazer, which could accommodate 7 passengers, plus the driver. Miraculously, the eider stayed put, and I ended up driving the last several participants out in the Blazer myself. We finished this whole series of shuttles at 10:30 p.m. (having started in midafternoon), with everyone ecstatic at having obtained superb studies of a male Spectacled Eider.
In Barrow, the sun never sets between mid-May and July. Energized by our success with the eider, and with no worries about running out of light, I asked the participant who had rented the Blazer if she minded me taking it out for some late night birding. She said it was rented for the night and to have fun! I headed out after 11:00 p.m., with the intent to spend a few hours photographing birds at the end of the road. Only I never made it that far, because partway out, I noticed that the big muddy lagoon on the left had many more shorebirds than I had seen on any of my previous passes earlier that evening.
I wasn’t even carrying a scope, but the presence of so many apparent “new arrivals” among the shorebird throngs was too good to pass up. So, I stopped and scanned, and quickly spotted a small, rufous-throated shorebird feeding by itself (some distance away) that I at first took to be a Red-necked Stint. But something about it didn’t look quite right. There was a recent report of a breeding-plumaged Sanderling from this same lagoon, so I figured that my bird must be the Sanderling. Wanting a photo of a Sanderling in high breeding plumage, I got out of the Blazer and began hiking over to the cove to photograph the bird. About halfway there, I raised my binoculars to confirm that I was stalking the correct shorebird and noticed that it was not running along the muddy shoreline like a Sanderling, but rather, was feeding offshore, with its head buried in the water and swinging its head from side to side. I was puzzling over this odd foraging behavior when the bird lifted its bill out of the water for a split-second, and I noticed a distinct blob at the tip. I felt an electric jolt of adrenaline, as I considered for the first time that I might be looking at a Spoon-billed Sandpiper—a rare (even in Asia) and charismatic shorebird for which there were only four known North American records! I spent several anxious minutes watching the actively foraging bird (and cursing myself for not bringing my scope) in an attempt to confirm that the blob tip to the bill was actually structural and not mud.
Once I had confirmed that the bill tip was indeed spatulate (no easy task on a bird that kept its bill in the water 90% of the time), and after celebrating by jumping up and down with several self-congratulatory fist-pumps, I began easing closer in an attempt to document the record photographically. I was torn between the desire to get good, confirming photos of this mega-rarity and the fear of flushing the bird without my tour group having seen it. The bird was actually fairly confiding, and I probably could have gotten much closer than I did, but I really didn't want to risk scaring it off. I took perhaps 40 photos, and eventually was pretty certain that at least a few of them would confirm the bill morphology (this, of course, being long before the advent of digital photography made it possible to check your photos on the spot), which was surprisingly difficult to see with accuracy except from certain angles.
At this point, I looked at my watch, and it was 1:30 a.m.! I decided that I could not count on the bird still being there later in the morning (group breakfast was set for 7:30 a.m., with birding to follow), so I headed back to the hotel, intent on waking my group to chase the bird. The problem was that our group transportation, provided by the hotel, was an old school bus, and neither the bus, nor its driver, was available in the middle of the night. Not only that, but the bus would be incapable of driving to that spot because a section of the road in between was a muddy quagmire, requiring a 4WD vehicle to pass. Of course, I had access to the Blazer, but it could accommodate only 7 passengers beside myself, and I had 21 participants in my group! So, I had to settle for going back to the hotel, waking 7 people at a time, and taking them out to see the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I was actually pretty nervous about calling people at 1:30 a.m. There was no sense in waking everyone at the same time and creating a state of high anxiety. The problem was in deciding in what order to take people. I had no written record of the lottery order, so using that as my foundation was out. I finally decided to phone the 7 people that I thought were least likely to kill me when I woke them up 3 hours into their sleep! Of course, I included the woman who rented the Blazer. After not getting a single angry reaction from any of the first 7 participants, it made waking up the others much easier.
I made two runs, covering the first 14 people, and the Spoon-bill was still in the same spot. With scopes, the views were superb! On each occasion, I noted that the Spoon-bill was extremely territorial toward its patch of shoreline and cove, and very aggressively ran off all other peeps and even much larger shorebirds such as Red Phalaropes. When I returned to the spot for the third time, with the last of my participants, the Spoon-bill was not in the same spot. After a frenzied search, I relocated the bird about 100 m down the same shoreline. We hiked over to the spot, and just as we stopped to set up the scopes, a jaeger made a low pass over the lagoon and spooked all of the dozens of small shorebirds that were scattered across the flats. The shorebirds swirled around for a minute or so and then resettled, but we could not relocate the Spoonbill. Before long, a dense fog settled in, making it impossible to see anything. We drove back to the hotel, arriving at 6:30 a.m. I set my alarm for one hour, joined the entire group for breakfast at 7:30, then drove back out in the school bus as far as we could drive, and then hiked the remaining distance to the Spoon-bill spot.
The bird was not at either of the spots where we had seen it during the night, so we spread out and began scouring the extensive shoreline and mudflats surrounding this large lagoon. The problem now was not fog, but severe thermal distortion ("heat waves") that made it nearly impossible to identify small shorebirds at any distance. Eventually, a woman in my group, remembering my description of the Spoon-bill as having been very aggressive, called my attention to a small shorebird on the far side of the lagoon that was repeatedly attacking other small shorebirds. The heat waves made discrimination all but impossible, but from what I could tell, it was the Spoon-bill! Fortuitously, the bird in question suddenly launched into flight, flew across the lagoon toward us, and flew right over our heads (perhaps only 6–8 m above ground) in display flight on quivering wings, vocalizing all the way. It was flying so low, and came directly over us, so that everyone could see the spatulate tip to the bill, even with the naked eye. The bird passed over us, landed on a mud flat on our side of the lagoon, and we proceeded to study it in the scope. While we were thus engaged, two guys in a pick-up drove up, got out, walked over to us, and asked if we were "seeing anything good?" These guys turned out to be biologists studying nesting Snowy Owls (one of them was future VENT leader Denver Holt!). We said, "If you'd like to see a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, take a look in our scopes!" Timing, indeed, is everything.
Shortly thereafter, the bird flew back to the far side of the lagoon, and we had to leave to make our flight back to Anchorage. As far as I know, the bird was never relocated by anyone. My photos, poor as they were by today’s digital standards, nonetheless provided the hoped for documentation of this exciting record—the 4th ever for Alaska, only the 5th ever for the entire North American continent, and, sadly, what has turned out, 27 years later, to be the last North American record of this now critically endangered shorebird. And, best of all, everyone in our group got to see it!
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