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St. Paul Island, part 2: Breeding Songbirds

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at
on Friday, November 16, 2012 

In the last installment, I wrote about the variety of birds that breed in the cliffs of St. Paul Island, Alaska, including some very unique species.  Today I'd like to introduce you to the four songbirds that regularly breed on St. Paul. Yup, there's only four!

Among the most common of the breeding songbirds here is the Lapland Longspur.  Lapland Longspurs song sounds a bit like that of the Western Meadowlark, and can be heard from all around during the spring and early summer on the island.

A male Lapland Longspur, one of the most abundant species on the island.  (This and all photos on this post are copyright by the author, Ryan O'Donnell.) 

Another relatively common breeding species on the island is the Snow Bunting.  This species usually nests among rocks, so it is frequently found near the cliffs but also in quarries and other areas where the recent volcanic rocks crop out above the vegetation.  McKay's Buntings have been found in the breeding season on St. Paul Island in the past, but not this year and never in considerable numbers.

A male Snow Bunting guarding his territory at the edge of a boulder field.

A juvenile Snow Bunting, out of the nest for a few days or maybe weeks.

St. Paul Island is also home to an endemic subspecies of Pacific Wren (recently known as Winter Wren).  The Pribilof Pacific Wren is much more common on nearby St. George Island, and has reportedly gone extinct on St. Paul Island and recolonized from St. George (Hanna 1920).  It can be told from most of the mainland birds by its larger size and longer bill.  It is a year-round resident on the island, which is amazing considering that it eats only insects and given the winter conditions there!  Last winter was particularly harsh, and this summer we were only able to find one male on territory on the whole island.

A Pribilof Pacific Wren perched on a lichen-covered rock at the edge of a fur seal colony.

The last of the regularly breeding songbirds is also the most morphologically unique.  The Pribilof subspecies of the Gray-crowned Rosy Finch has a head pattern like the Hepburn's subspecies, but is much larger than the mainland subspecies.  The National Geographic book lists it at 8.25 inches long, only 0.25 inches smaller than a European Starling.  They are sometimes referred to as the "St. Paul House Sparrow" because they nest in the eaves of the buildings in town (as well as natural cavities in rocks, etc., around the island), and there are no real House Sparrows on the island.  

A Pribilof Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch on the makeshift platform seed feeder outside our apartment. 

Another Pribilof subspecies Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.  Both of these photos show adults, but sexes do not differ in plumage.
Up next from St. Paul Island, Alaska? Well, we'll see. . . . Probably either the last of the breeding birds (shorebirds and waterfowl), or some common migrants.

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Blogger Bryce said...

Awesome post Ryan. Loved the recordings.

November 17, 2012 at 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice recordings. -Colby

November 20, 2012 at 12:53 PM  

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