Middleton Island is approximately six miles long and one mile wide at its widest point. This small island sits 42 miles south of Montague Island, the nearest point of land, and is only a few miles north of the continental shelf break. Not many birders get to Middleton, but despite this fact there have been a number of incredible records from the island over the years. I’ve been wanting to get to the island for years and finally made it happen this fall. Our friend Luke DeCicco is currently wrapping up the second season of his fall bird survey on the island so I and five other birders arranged a charter out to the island to see what Luke has been up to (and to score some rare birds!). We arrived on the island on 24 September (a day late due to weather) and returned to Anchorage on 2 October.
Middleton’s position off-shore makes it an oasis for migrating passerines, and its proximity to the continental shelf gives birders an opportunity to look for seabirds not normally found near shore. The highlights of our trip were many and ranged from Flesh-footed Shearwater to Mottled Petrel to Brambling to Alaska’s first Blue-headed Vireo!
Below are a few of the highlights that I was able to photograph. Click on any photo to enlarge.
Palm Warbler Setophaga palmarum, Middleton Island, 1 October 2012.
Thede Tobish found this Palm Warbler on the east side of the island in some sparse willows where it was very easy to view. It fed in the open, on the ground and in the low willows while constantly giving is “tsik” call. Palm The overall drab appearance and pale beige underparts (not bright yellow) with the yellow limited to the undertail coverts identify this as a Western Palm Warbler S. p. palmarum. Palm Warbler is casual in Alaska with over 30 reports/records, most of them from September through November. Over half of the records come from Southeast Alaska, but it has occurred widely throughout the state (Barrow, Gambell, Colville River, Fairbanks, etc.) This is the second record for Middleton Island.
Blue-headed Vireo Vireo solitarius, Middleton Island, 2 October 2012. Photos by Lucas H. DeCicco.
On 30 September Steve Heinl had brief but convincing views of a Blue-headed Vireo in the dense willows on the west bluffs of the island. The bird quickly vanished and despite thorough searches by the entire group for the rest of the afternoon we could not relocate the bird. The next day the winds had switched to the southwest and were strong enough to make birding the west bluff willows very difficult. So despite our best efforts we failed again to relocate the bird. On our final morning with only about two hours to spare Thede relocated the bird about a half mile from the original sighthing and with work everyone was able to get on the bird.
The features that help separate it from Cassin’s Vireo V. cassinii include: the bright blue-gray head that contrasts with a greenish back; a clear line of contrast between the blue-gray cheek and white throat; and the bright lemon-yellow flanks and wingbars. Additionally, we also heard this bird sing! Its initial response to tape playback include about three clear slurred whistles of its song. Cassin’s Vireo’s voice is raspier and the notes of its song have a burred quality. This Blue-headed Vireo trumped the Palm Warbler in the final hour of the trip to become the undisputed bird of the trip. If accepted by the Alaska Check List Committee, this is the first Blue-headed Vireo for Alaska!
Warbling Vireo Vireo gilvus, Middleton Island, 29 September 2012.
Warbling Vireo breeds throughout Southeast Alaska as far north as Haines and Skagway. There are a number of fall records for Middleton. This bird was found foraging in the open willows on the east side of the island on 29 September and then relocated there on 1 October near the willows that held the Palm Warbler’s attention. The pale lores, low contrast facial pattern that lacks a prominent eye-line, and “soft” expression help separate it from much less likely Philadelphia Vireo.
Tennessee Warbler Oreothlypis peregrina,Middleton Island, 30 September 2012.
Three different Tennessee Warblers were found during our stay on the island. This bird was found in the northern most patch of willows on the east side of the island and was hanging out with a Townsend’s Warbler, two Yell0w-rumped Warblers, an Orange-crowned and a Yellow Warbler.
Blackpoll Warbler Setophaga striata, Middleton Island, 26 September 2012.
An especially dull Blackpoll Warbler. Blackpoll Warblers are common breeding birds throughout much of interior Alaska but are extremely rare on the coasts of southcentral and southeast.
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas, Middleton Island, 30 September 2012.
File this one under the category, “lousy photos of great birds.”
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla, Middleton Island, 29 September 2012.
In addition to the interesting passerines that we got from the east, we also enjoyed this lone Brambling. It was first found on the island on 29 September when Thede and I watched if fly in off the water. It was seen at least through 1 October.