Seven Warblers (two lifers) – with a Dark Side

Given the season and weather, plus past experience, I probably should have known better, but with clearing skies this morning, I was torn about whether to get out for a hike up a trail, or stay home and make some much needed progress on various work-related projects. It didn’t turn out that I did either, but that was no cause for disappointment.

With snow down to around 3000 feet on the mountains, I considered a trip up Verstovia to try and do a historic retake photo of a couple of Merrill’s shots of Bear Mountain with fall snow. However, I ultimately decided that I was not up to that level of effort.

By early afternoon, I was planning drive up Harbor Mountain and walk up the trail for a ways there, as the gates are due to close this week. Fortunately I held off long enough to receive a text from David K. that changed my plans.

He let me know there seemed to be a push of warblers today, with multiple species seen between the park and downtown, including a couple birds that he wasn’t so sure about, but it did seem likely based on what he said that they were unusual for here.

This last week of October to first week of November timeframe has seen some really good birds for Sitka (and in some cases, Alaska) in recent years, including a Cape May Warbler, multiple Palm Warblers, a Northern Waterthrush, and Red Phalaropes (the Tropical Kingbird showed up a little earlier, but did stick around into the last week of October).

After hearing from David, I decided to go for a walk down to the entrance to the park, and then back along the seawalk at least as far as Castle Hill.

I found my first warbler, a Wilson’s, with chickadees and kinglets in some crabapple trees on Finn Alley. It’s getting late for those, so I snapped a few photos of the warbler and a Golden-crowned Kinglet since it was reasonably cooperative (and also noted, though didn’t photograph, a Northern Flicker eating crabapples).

Back on Etolin Street I took pictures of a young Anna’s Hummingbird and a chickadee (but was having trouble with a camera setting, which fortunately I took time to figure out a little while later, or I would have been really annoyed later on).

From there I went back to Finn Alley and Barlow Street, then along the sea walk to the park without seeing much.

After turning around at the park, I heard a couple of birds, and with a little effort was able to spot a couple of warbler high up in a spruce. I was able to determine one was a Yellow-rumped (#2), and the other probably an Orange-crowned (#3), though it was far away and moving quickly, so I wasn’t entirely sure (I later confirmed from photos).

They flew off towards town, and I continued on my way. Again seeing little (though I did catch a brief glimpse of a Red-breasted Sapsucker), I decided to take a side trip up by the SJ museum.

I was a little surprised to find several different mushroom species up on the SJ campus, though several were clearly past their prime, and I documented several to put in iNaturalist.

Returning to the sea walk, I slowly made my way into town without noticing any activity until the pine trees right at the northwestern corner. It took a while to get good enough looks, but I was eventually able to determine it was a Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warbler (which I was guessing might have been the same ones I saw earlier). They were moving quickly, and I burned through quite a few frames trying to get a decent shot or two.

It being Halloween afternoon, downtown was closed off from traffic for trick-or-treaters to visit the stores. I opted to avoid the crowds, and walked along Harbor Drive to get to Castle Hill.

Once on top of Castle Hill I could see warblers flitting about in the maples below me, and was able to tell there was at least one Yellow Warbler (#4), and multiple Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Based on previous experience, I looked for a warbler mostly working the ground, and sure enough, was able to find a Palm Warbler (#5) as well.

I thought it might be nice to get photos of the Palm Warbler, so made my way down to the city offices parking lot and was able to get some very nice looks from there.

I kept looking in the trees, hoping to resight and photograph the Yellow warbler (as it too is on the late side).

Instead, I saw a warbler that was unfamiliar to me. I was later able to determine it was a Magnolia Warbler (#6), which might be a first record for Sitka, but is only Rare (rather than Very Rare or Accidental) for the state. I’m not sure what the late-date record is, but this may be approaching it.

Since it was unfamiliar, I called and texted some folks while also doing my best to get (better) photos of the bird as it rapidly moved around foraging in the remaining foliage.

Jen C. showed up, but by then the bird had disappeared. We saw a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, but things had gone quiet.

It didn’t take too much waiting before the birds reappeared, and while we were looking for the (at the time) mystery warbler, Jen commented that she saw yet another bird that seemed different, and was definitely not the one I had seen previously.

This one was high up, and with the various Yellow-rumped Warblers also moving around quickly from place to place with lots of branches in between, it was challenging to keep an eye on, let alone try and get the camera on this new mystery bird, but I did get enough of a look to see it had a black mask bounded by white and no apparent color on its head/throat.

I decided to go up to the top of the hill again, and no sooner had I got there than all the birds were gone. I waited, listened, and watched (including on the other side of the hill) for several minutes, but saw nothing (and neither did Jen down below). I walked down the stairs and braved the circus of customed kids and adults on Lincoln Street to check out the Pioneer Home grounds, but did not find anything there either.

I returned back to the parking lot to see if Jen had seen anything, but it had been quiet.

The light was definitely fading, but there was still enough to inspire hope that they might return for another chance, and sure enough, after a few minutes, I heard and saw Yellow-rumped Warblers come back.

Jen saw the second mystery warbler in the mix again, so I focused on trying to find and photograph it.

In the dim light with several Yellow-rumped Warblers and one mystery bird flitting back and forth through the leaves and branches backlit against the gray sky, it was difficult to find the target bird, and almost impossible to track it.

I finally started resorting to spray-and-pray tactics, taking advantage of the autofocus and high frame rate of my camera, pressing and holding the shutter button whenever I managed to get anything in view.

I didn’t get any good photos, but ultimately got ones that were enough to figure out this was a Black-throated Gray Warbler (#7) – a first record for Sitka, and only the fourth for the state.

While I was shooting all these photos, Jen said something about another bird that flew in, which she followed up immediately by saying it was a pygmy-owl.

I saw the pygmy-owl perched up on a maple branch looking down, and a couple of the warblers were aggitated and alarming at it.

Around this time, Jen got a phone call, but I kept watching the owl and the warblers.

The owl flew into the trees where I couldn’t see it, and shortly after I saw something drop down below that I thought might have been the owl again.

I moved around the park cars to get a better view, and found the owl perched in the bare salmonberry bushes.

The owl was looking down intently, and I thought maybe it was hoping to find something on the ground (as one I saw a week and a half ago was doing – there had been a rat scrambling around earlier, so I wondered if it might go for that).

I was so focused on the owl, it was only when I saw a flash of yellow as it took off and flew up to a nearby branch that I realized it had already caught a bird (later review of my photos confirmed that I had simply failed to notice the bird it was holding, as it was clearly there).

Sitting in the branch, I couldn’t see the prey at all, so I moved around for a better angle and discovered it was the Magnolia Warbler that had been caught.

I could see the warbler was firmly held, but seemed to be still alive. I briefly wondered if it might be able to get away, and possibly the idea of startling the owl off to see if it would drop it crossed my mind, but no sooner had those thoughts flitted through my mind when the owl bent over and seemed to give a ‘kiss of death’ to the warbler.

As it the owl lifted its head up, the warble gave a couple of wing and tail flaps, then was still. I couldn’t see any blood, so I’m not sure what the owl actually did, but it seemed clear the warbler was now dead.

Amazingly, I was watching all of this from probably less than 10 feet away, shooting photos pretty much the whole time. Thank goodness for modern digital camera technology, as I was able to get some decent shots, and at least one pretty good one, with a 400mm lens, at 1/50sec and f5.6 (as open as this goes at that focal length), at ISO 8000. If you know don’t know anything about what that means, just suffice to say that it was dim light, and the combination of amazing image sensor + image stabilization technologies made it possible for me to document this intense scene in a way I couldn’t have without it.

I never did get a picture of the Yellow Warbler, so only photographed six warblers while seeing seven for the day. While these are numbers someone from the East Coast would no doubt find laughable, they’re really good totals or Sitka (and I suspect for Alaska). Perhaps equally unexpected was to get two life birds in a day. It’s been quite sometime since that has happened (I may have to see if I can figure out the last time). In any case, I was quite happy with the decision to forgo the mountain hike.

My iNaturalist Observations for Today

(more photos to come as I get them processed – it turns out that it takes a while for my computer to process 500 photos, and then there’s editing. Fortunately in the first pass I was able to cut the number down to under 150, but subsequent passes will take more time per photo)

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