Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rare Alaskan Visitor

Two vagrant sub-adult parakeet auklets seen off the coast of Central Coast January 17, 2009. Photography by Brad Schram, copyright 2009, all rights reserved - used by permission.

Some folks attending the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival this year were treated to a possible once in a lifetime view of a bird that is not often seen on the California Coast.

The pelagic field trip ventures out into the open ocean to find albatross, shearwaters, alcids, kittiwakes, jaegers, and sometimes a gray whale. This year the group was searching the waves when someone shouted out "auklet." Expecting probably one of the two auklets that visit the waters off the Central Coast, namely Rhinoceros auklet or Cassin's auklet, the guides were amazed to see that the bird in question was a parakeet auklet and not only was there one, but two. Cameras came out swiftly and thanks to the talent and skill of leader, Brad Schram, we have some great shots of these very rare visitors from Alaska.

Most people want to know about this bird's name. Why is it called parakeet? It doesn't look like a parakeet, does it? The beak is apparently the clue. It is orange-red and slightly upturned and those special people that give scientific names to birds thought it resembled a small parrot's bill. Thus they dubbed it Aethia psittacula, from the Latin, psittacus, meaning, little parrot. Now I've looked at parrots large and small and studied parakeets, known as budgies, and I sure can't see any similarity in their beaks to this little auklet's, but what does it matter. It's great bird!

Parakeet auklets live in Alaska most of the year extending over to the coasts of Siberia. They are small birds with a somewhat long neck and are black above with white below. During breeding season they sport a thin white plume from their eyes to behind the head.

Auklets are sea birds, feeding out on the open ocean. Parakeet auklets nest in small colonies in crevices high up on the rocky cliffs from June to August in Alaska and Siberia. They winter from the Bering Sea to Japan, and sometimes reach the shores of Central California. Local Audubon members who have lived here a long time tell me the last time parakeet auklets were definitely sighted off our coast was back in 1955, so this year's finding is really special.

Since the festival's pelagic trip in January two other ocean ventures have been held and the birds were seen again. Who knows how long they will stay in our area, but for the folks on these seagoing birding trips it has been a real treat and for many,a sighting of a life bird for their birding lists.

Maybe next year's pelagic trip will serve up even better rarities, so be sure to sign up for the 2010 Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival to be held January 15 through the 18th.

Parakeet auklets
(c) 2009 Brad Schram

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