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November 1997


Matt's Message
by Matt DeVries (

On November 6, 1993, my obsession with birds began. I had felt the stirrings for sometime, but it wasn’t until the Harlequin Duck materialized, seemingly from nowhere, that I realized what a magical obsession birds could be.

It wasn’t the glamour of a colorfully decorated, stunning creature that won me over. The duck we found was a female, lacking any of the beautiful color patterns for which this duck is famed. But, staring at hundreds of Lesser Scaup and Eared Grebes had prepared me for a watershed moment: when the Harlequin Duck appeared, I became acutely aware that not all birds are the same.

This may sound disturbingly obvious, but it was a revelation to me. Before my epiphany, I had birds lumped into categories like big and small. Not all of my classifications were that abstract, I knew there were ducks and hawks and sparrows, but that was it. I might have been able to identify five species. I even thought magpies were an exotic Finnish bird occurring only in Pia’s yard.

I have since seen hundred of species and thousands of individuals. I have learned about different behaviors, habitats, plumages, and songs. I have learned about birds I see every day, birds I see rarely, and birds I will never see. I have thrilled at unexpected discoveries and been saddened by the finality of extinction. Each new discovery has opened the possibility of many others.

One chilly day in early November changed the way I view the world. It added depth and color and wonder to my life. So, when November rolls around and most people start dreaming of turkeys, thoughts of a drab female Harlequin Duck fill my mind and energize my soul. For me, November will always be a magical and rewarding month: the month I discovered birds.


November Meeting
by Dennis Shirley

The November meeting of the Utah County Birders will feature Don Paul, of the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources. The meeting will begin at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 20. It will be held at BYU’s Bean Museum.

Future Meetings

December: Merrill Webb, Christmas Bird Count


Prepare for Another Contest

The 1998 Quality Birder contest is in the planning stages, covering birds seen in Utah State. Known as QB98, the contest will focus on bird study, field trips, cooperation and service. While the particulars and rewards are not finalized, rumor has it that t-shirts or golf shirts might be involved. Details will be included in the December Newsletter. This contest is be sponored by Robin Tuck, who will be the impartial judge again.


Robin’s View
by Robin Tuck (


Both of this month's articles, "The Calling Tree" and "A Book Report," are found in the Robin's View section of this web site.


Birding in St. Paul
An Attu Adventure, Part 2: 1995
by Ned C. Hill (

This is the second of a series of articles giving the account of North America’s ultimate birding adventure: a trip to Attu Island, Alaska. (Part 1 appeared in the September NewsLetter.) The 1995 trip was cancelled due to weather but a great backup adventure took Ivan Call and me to the Pribilof Islands.

After returning from an exhilarating trip to Dutch Harbor where we found one of North America=s rarest nesting birds, the Whiskered Auklet, our spirits were suddenly and cruelly dashed by the bad news that awaited us: Attu was off for the year!! All those dreams had to be put on hold because of the severe winter storm that engulfed Attu. Reeve Airways just could not hold a plane for us any longer. The disappointment hung like that same storm over our group that night. Most of our group made plans to return home the next day but Ivan and I wouldn=t give up. We had come to Alaska to find birds. Along with others, we urged Larry Balch to devise an alternative trip. It was too early to go to Nome and GambellCwhere we had planned to spend a week after Attu. There would be no migrants there this early in the year. The next morning, LarryCthe master of impromptu arrangementsChad organized a trip for 24 of us to go for four days to St. Paul, part of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. The lodge there agreed to open earlier than usual to accommodate us, and Larry sent with us some of his best leaders: Paul Baicich, Steve Heinl and Mike Toochin. Ivan Call, Parker Gay (of Salt Lake) and I eagerly signed up. Our despair turned to excited anticipation as we bade farewell to fellow near-Attuvians, boarded the plane and headed for another birding adventureCperhaps not the Mt. Everest of birding spots--just Mt. Rainier.

On our trip from the airport (if you can call a dirt landing strip with some portable potties an Aairport@) we stopped at a large bay where we saw our first life birds on St. Paul: a Bar-tailed Godwit. Among many Glaucous-winged Gulls were some Kittiwakes. With a little work, we could begin to separate the more common Black-legged from the Red-legged. The latter is rarely seen outside the Pribs except wandering juveniles. In a pond across from the bay we discovered several male Tufted Ducks. When the wind was right, we could see the long tufts on their heads.

Heading into our lodge, we saw the town of St. Paul with its population of about 700 including native Aleuts and Lower 48 fishermen seeking their fortunes in Alaskan waters. Housing is quite bleak and landscaping and paved roads non-existent. The severe weather takes its toll on structures and vehicles. This area is the home of the King Crab and other commercially valuable fish. The lodge we stayed in was warm and comfortable but the restaurant was not going to be open yet. Larry had arranged for us to eat with the fishermen in a large, modern fish processing plant a few blocks from our lodge. The food was plentiful and we heard plenty about the perils of fishing in these waters. To get around, Liz Snyder, one of our group who had a commercial bus license, drove us in a minibus that seated all of us.

After dinner we headed out to the sea bird cliffsCperhaps 50 to 100 feet tall facing the pounding surf below. In the fading light and mist we caught our first views of Least Auklets and their plastic-mouthed cousins, Parakeet Auklets. Both were abundant on the cliffs. Some estimated that several million birds inhabit the island during nesting season. We also saw numerous Red-faced Cormorants sharing cliff space with the auklets.

The next morning when we went for breakfast, a scraggly Arctic Fox was scavenging for food near the door to the fish plant. In the shallow water near a moored processing boat, we discovered a winter plumaged Black GuillemotCunusual but not unexpected for this area. From shore near the dining area, we got very good views of the comical looking Crested Auklet. Jean Cohn, a 70+ year-old who has been to Attu many times, observed a dark-backed gull flying over the harbor. We waited in the cold wind (it was almost always cold and windy) for an hour or so until a cry went up, AThere it isCSlaty-backed Gull!@ We got good looks at this visitor from Siberia as it circled the harbor. It was seen almost every day since the first sighting.

On our first bus trip to the northern part of the island (perhaps 15 miles), we had a wonderful surprise. As we sat in the bus, one of our group looked out the window and spotted a pair of Snowy Owls perched on top of a sand dune. We piled over each other out of the bus to get great looks at these majestic birds in almost totally white plumage. We had not expected to find them here. On the north shore, we found the advance parties of what would later become a huge influx of Northern Fur Seals. The large males come in first to establish their territories. These animals can weigh almost a ton. Whenever we approached their territories, they would bark and bellow fiercely. We were saddened to see some of the Aleuts sitting on shore and shooting the seals with high-powered rifles. They are permitted to do subsistence hunting and we hoped they were not just shooting for sport and letting the seals die at sea.

Almost every day we stopped at an area filled with huge crab/lobster traps. These large cage-like structures serve as wind breaks for small birds. In years past such birds as Siberian Rubythroats, Spotted Flycatchers and others have been found here. Unfortunately, we never did find any passerines hiding in this areaCit was a bit too early in the year for most smaller migrating birds. One afternoon we did find a very small raindeer there. It had been separated from the main herd on the island and a family had taken it in and fed it.

In the bay where we had seen the Bar-tailed Godwit, a distant duck proved to be a very unusual one. We studied it for quite some time before deciding it was a female Common PochardCa rare visitor from Asia. Ivan Call pointed out a couple of Eurasian Wigeon in a marshy area nearby.

We made numerous trips to the seabird cliffs. Standing on top of the cliffs and looking down onto the rock face below, it was quite a thrill to see thousands of Northern Fulmars, Thick-billed Murres, Common Murres, Auklets, Red-faced Cormorants, Horned and Tufted Puffins, and Kittiwakes all vying for precious space to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. It is amazing any survive at all. The murres were particularly interesting to watch as they circled, spread their webbed feet awkwardly and then tried to land. They would often miss and have to circle back for another attempt.

On the third day, in a pond on the north edge of the island, we found a beautiful male King Eider in breeding plumage among numerous Common Eider. We often made sweeps through wet fields and swampy areas hoping to turn up a stint or other unusual shorebird. Rock Sandpipers were everywhere. In the rocks near shore we found several tattlers that we thought might be Gray-tailed. But, in each case, when the bird finally flew, it made the call of the Wandering Tattler. We saw the Eurasian race of the Whimbrel and the Asian subspecies of Green-winged Teal. At one point Mike Toochin heard a strange sound overheadCthe jumbled song of the Eurasian Skylark. It would fly high into the air singing noisily and then swoop down to the ground. I had seen them in Finland and Vancouver but we didn=t expect this bird here.

Another bird we tried hard to find was the ever elusive McKay=s Bunting. This species easily hybridizes with Snow Bunting. Some authorities consider it to be a subspecies of the Snow Bunting. We spent hours hiking over boulder-strewn tundra looking for buntings with very white backs. Snow Buntings were everywhere and some individuals had less black on them than usual, but none could be considered all white. Steve Heinl is afraid McKay=s are no longer on St. Paul Island.

On the fourth day we packed up and headed for the Aairport.@ While we hadn=t found any passerine rarities, we had a wonderful time and were ready to move on. The plane circled and got lower and lower. But the clouds were lower yet and the plane could not break through to see how clear it was near the ground. After a while, the engine noise faded away. The pilot had given up. We were not going back to Anchorage that day! We seem to be weather-challenged travelers. More bus rides out to look for birds. No new birds to be found. The next dayCmore bad news. The plane that was coming to get us developed engine problems. Another day in St. Paul. The following dayCmore bad weather and no plane. Our four days would be at least seven. We had seen no new birds in 3 days and the group was getting restless.

Father Tom Pincelli is from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. He is a Catholic priest with a very large Hispanic congregation. Besides being a great birder and the voice of the Rare Bird Alert in southern Texas, he is a first class individual. We went with him to visit the Russian Orthodox priest in his little church. The church only holds about 20 peopleCnot many considering there are some 700 people thereCmost of them Russian Orthodox. The priest told us of the challenges they have keeping their youth on the island. The Russian church used to send priests from Russia who didn=t understand the people. This priest was the first ordained from among the Aleuts. While that has helped, once young people get away for college, they don=t want to return to the meager existence they have on St. Paul. During the week we were there, a teacher from Anchorage came up and visited the high school. He taught the young men to build a native umiakCa kayak-type boat built from whale bone and seal skins that is used to hunt whales and travel between islands in the open sea. We saw the ceremony to launch the umiak.

On day six, we went to a nearby marshy area where we spread out in a long line and walked in unison. At one point Steve Heinl motioned us all to stop. He had found an unusual shorebird up ahead which he quickly identified as a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. We all got to get great looks at this little bird with a finely striped head.

On the seventh day of our Pribilof adventure, we had nothing but good newsCplane okay, weather clear. Just before we got on the bus, we heard a cry, AOrcas in the bay!@ We rushed over to see an unsettling drama unfold: a group of Orcas (killer whales) had encircled one or more fur seals and were in the process of killing them. The smaller Orcas were doing the fighting. The larger ones looked on and swam in circles to keep the seals close. The surface of the water would redden and flippers could be seen reaching for aid. From the slick that resulted, large numbers of gulls were drawn in. This was the last day of school so many school kids got to see the sight, too. As we stood there in our multiple layers of fleece topped by Gortex, trying to keep warm, the Aleut children were taking off coats and shoes to wade in the icy sea!

On the way to the airport, the bus took us by the area where the Skylarks had been seen. We took one last look and were very surprised to find that a nest had been built on the ground. We carefully looked into the nest and saw four mottled eggs. Paul Baicich pointed out that this was the first recorded nesting of Skylark in North America other than introduced birds in British Columbia

The drone of the airplane was the most welcome sound we had heard in four days. As the plane landed it kicked up so much dust we thought for a moment it had crashed. That=s just the way it is with dirt landing strips. As much as we enjoyed St. Paul, we were so glad to climb on that plane. We flew to Anchorage where we spent the night in a real motel. We had become good friends with Don Burlett from Ohio. We invited him to join us for four or five days to see if we could find some of the key birds north and east of Anchorage. Our wives were very patient with our plans. We reasoned that we paid all this money to come to Alaska, we might as well spend a few more days and see some of the birds that can be seen in no other place. Receiving expert advice from the Alaskan-experienced birders in the group, we carefully planned our itinerary, rented a car and headed out the next morning towards the spruce forests.

To be continued.


Membership in the Utah County Birders is open to any interested person. Dues are $12 per year, although no one will be excluded if unable or unwilling to participate. Send dues to Beula Hinckley, 2067 N. 420 E., Provo, UT 84604

Executive Committee

President Matt DeVries ( 226-0958
Past-President Robin Tuck ( 377-8084
President-Elect Merrill Webb 224-6113
Secretary-Treasurer Beula Hinckley ( 377-3443
Programs Dennis Shirley 423-1108
Field Trips Ned Hill ( 375-2417
Membership Barbara Whipple ( 226-3931
Newsletter Weldon Whipple ( 226-3931

Telephone Hotline: 375-2487, 377-8084
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