Alarming Juncos and Tropical Kingbird Confirmed

I was busy this morning and was not able to get out and look for the kingbird. However, Lucy P. let me know she had found it around 9:30 this morning in the same neighborhood where it had been before. It flew off before the next person got out there to look, but just before noon it was spotted again by Kitty L. shortly before the south parking lot of Halibut Point Rec. It remained at that spot sallying out and back to the wires for about an hour, and during that time many folks were able to come out and see the bird.

I was able to get out there a little after noon. There was a small side street that went up behind where the wires were, and I hoped to be able to get a recording of it vocalizing (which it seemed to be doing from time to time) with less of the traffic noise from the main road. Upon walking up the road, I could not see the kingbird on the wires where I expected it, so I thought I needed to go further along.

As I rounded the a bend in the road, I noticed a relatively small dark looking bird gliding across in front of me. It didn’t really seem like a starling, but that was the only thing that really came to mind at the time. I was more focused on trying to figure out how to get to where I could see the kingbird, so I didn’t give it much consideration.

Several of the dwellings along this particular road are trailers which are relatively close together, and beside a couple of them were folks in running cars getting ready to leave. I tend to feel a little awkward wandering around neighborhoods looking through binoculars or big cameras when there are residents around, so I tried to play it cool until the cars drove off.

While I was waiting, I started to become aware of delicate but insistent sounding little sounds with the rhythm of popping corn. They seemed to be coming from behind one of the trailers, and with the engine of a car running nearby, I had a little trouble deciding what I was hearing. I thought it might be juncos alarming, but I could not see any juncos, and the would-be chip notes were so fast and numerous, that I began to doubt. I considered whether there might be a drain pipe with water dipping onto a pan, but that did not seem right either.

Once the last car drove off, I was able to more clearly hear that it definitely sounded like juncos, but I still could not see any. Their alarm chips are almost polite. Never loud, they can still convey intensity, which these were. By this time a Song Sparrow was calling closer to me, but it could have just as easily been calling because of me rather than in response to them, I am not sure.

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Download Audio of Alarming Juncos (and Song Sparrow)
Recording of the alarming juncos – the most obvious loud calls are from the Song Sparrow. It did not seem especially concerned, but if you listen into the background a little bit, all of the rapid little chip/clicks are very insistent juncos alarming. Careful listeners may also notice geese calling in the distance (a flock was starting to fly over as I made this recording).

When a Northern Pygmy-Owl suddenly flew up from inside the trees and perched on a branch out in the open, several things clicked for me. The bird I had seen as I walked up was the owl. It had flown deep into the thicket of branches where I could not see it. The neighborhood juncos knew what was up, and were raising the alarm while keeping the owl surrounded. The juncos were also all obscured by the branches. When the owl came out into the open, some of the juncos followed (at a safe distnace).

I was interested to see that, unlike when my kids and I had previously found a Western Screech Owl due to bird alarms (where the alarming birds all seemed to be in kind of an umbrella above the owl), some of the alarming juncos seemed to be below the owl (though still keeping their distance).

After waiting for a couple of others to arrive (they had never seen a pygmy-owl – so fortunately the owl stuck around for a little bit), I walked back down to see if I could figure out where to best observe the kingbird. It turned out where I had originally thought I would be able to see the bird was a good spot, and it was now back perched on the wires there. I was able to take some pictures against the bright overcast skies, and I also got a couple of recordings of its calls to confirm it is a Tropical Kingbird.

There are two calls on the recording – I cut out some of the time between them, so they are closer together in the recording than the bird made them.

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Download Audio of Tropical Kingbird

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Tropical(?) Kingbird

Update: The bird is still here on Thursday, 20 October. (Given the rarity of this species in Alaska, I’ll try to post an update each day the bird is seen.)

On Monday, Marge W. called me to let me know that Brownie T. had been seen a flycatcher with a yellow belly and yellow under the wings in front of her house (which is not far from Halibut Point Recreation area). It had been around on Sunday afternoon into the evening, but with the AT&T cell tower having trouble, neither Marge nor Brownie had been able to get in touch with me about going out to try and get some photos. In the initial conversations, the subject of size had never come up, so I think we were all thinking in terms of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher that was late, or maybe a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher – either way, it would be a good bird to document.

I got a call from Brownie this morning letting me know that after not seeing it at all yesterday, the bird was back where it had been (hanging around on her deck and nearby trees and shrubs). By the time I got out there, she said it had gone, but I was welcome to stay and watch. I walked around the side of the house to the waterfront and, as I arrived, I saw a bird fly across in front of me out over the water moving parallel to the shore. It did not fly in a way I’m used to seeing, so I wondered if it was the bird I was looking for. Lighting was not great, it was moving quickly, and I didn’t have my binoculars out soon enough, so I only had impressions of size and flight pattern as I watched it go a ways down the beach and land in the top of a tall spruce tree.

My sense was the bird I saw approached robin size, and had it flown more like a robin, that’s what I would have thought it was. I started down the beach to get a better look. Unfortunately it flew off while I was looking down to pick my steps carefully in a slippery section, so I did not see where it went. Given the size and suspicion I had seen the bird, I began to consider a kingbird as a possibility. I was able to talk to Linda (Brownie’s neighbor) who had seen the bird Sunday, and she thought it was bigger than a junco. Later I spoke again with Brownie and she said it was a little smaller than a robin, but definitely bigger than a Song Sparrow. This ruled out the flycatcher I had originally been thinking about, and I was now pretty sure I was looking for a kingbird.

I spent a couple of hours sitting on the rock retaining wall above the cobble and sand beach watching. Rain showers moved over, I noticed humpback whales in the distance to the north and some juncos that were moving through the yards. Thankfully I had come prepared with rain coat and pants, but I did finally start to feel chilled. Since the bird I had seen went in the direction of town, I decided to walk along the road that way in hopes of finding it. I figured at the very least I would get a chance to warm up a bit.

Walking along the margin of Halibut Point Road, it was only a couple of blocks before I noticed the bird on the wire right over the road at the start of the 3300 block. I immediately knew it was a kingbird, but was not sure what kind, as they’re a group I’m not familiar with. I only observed the bird for 2-3 minutes total before it flew up and over the hill to where I could not see it. In this time I managed to take a some photos and get the word out to some other local birders. Unfortunately, none of the several folks who came out to look were able to see it, though I suspect it was still somewhere in the general neighborhood.

Once home, I was able to take a closer look at the photos, and as best I could tell, it was a Tropical or Couch’s Kingbird, with much more yellow on the front than expected for a Western Kingbird. Apparently the best way to differentiate Tropical and Couch’s is by their calls (I did not hear any in my brief encounter), but the pattern of vagrancy would strongly suggest Tropical Kingbird. I fired off an email with a couple of photos to Steve Heinl and he confirmed it was a Tropical/Couch’s type Kingbird.

There a few prior October records of this species from Ketchikan, and at least a couple of them stayed for a week or so (per Steve Heinl), so hopefully this one will stick around long enough for more folks to see it.

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Fall Season Mountains and Birds

October continued its dry start with clear skies throughout the day. I did not notice any frost on the vehicles this morning, but it’s possible I just was not up early enough. With clear and calm conditions tonight, I suspect there will be frost tomorrow, though forecast lows are only for the lower 40s.

I had an errand to take care of this evening, so I decided to take advantage of the clear conditions and document what I suspect is the minimal snow extent this year. While it’s possible there will be additional melt before snow starts accumulating at higher elevations, I doubt it will be significant.

On a brief stop at Swan Lake I noticed a male Canvasback, a species not reported every year.

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Quiet at the Golf Course

I returned to the golf course today with Connor and Rowan. I hoped that the American Pipits and Horned Larks might stick around for another day, but in a walk around the course I did not see any. The only bird I found out in the open areas was a Savannah Sparrow, though I did hear several Song Sparrows, a couple of Northern Flickers and a number of other birds utilizing the trees and shrubs around the edges.

While I walked the last half of the course looking for birds, Connor and Rowan checked around the edges of the pond looking for frogs. I had recently heard a report that there were frogs singing at the course last spring, and just last week, one was found (I’ll post more on that later). No frogs were found on this day, however.

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Sitka Nature Show #114 – Jonathan Goff and Connor Goff

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The 4 September show featured a conversation with my brother Jonathan and my son Connor. We discussed tracking, rock hounding, and Connor’s quest for 200 bird species in Sitka. I introduce the conversation about 3 minutes in to the show.

If you have questions or observations you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment here or on the page I’ve set up for that purpose.

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Sitka Nature Show #113 – The Librarians

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The 21 August show featured a conversation with librarians Kari Sagel and Brooke Schafer. Earlier in the day I was a guest of theirs on The Library Show, and I was happy to have them join me to talk about some of their experiences out in nature. The introduction to the conversation starts about 1 minute in.

If you have questions or observations you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment here or on the page I’ve set up for that purpose.

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