First time anyone sees tiny warbler in North America

Posted: Friday, September 13, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Bob Dodelson was relaxing at home in suburban New Jersey on Sunday evening when a call came in from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.

A field guide on the line told him a lesser whitethroat had turned up in a whale bone yard in Gambell, a Yupik island village and birding hot spot, 200 miles west of Nome.

It was the first time anyone had seen the tiny warbler in North America and marked the second rare bird sighting in Gambell in less than a month. The lesser whitethroat, whose easternmost range is normally found in Central Siberia, was thousands of miles off course.

Dodelson immediately started packing. The retired physician from East Brunswick, N.J., flew out of Newark the following day on a long journey to Gambell.

''I was crazy enough to do that,'' he said, speaking on a crackly phone line from the Sivuqaq Inn in Gambell.

The lesser whitethroat was gone by the time he arrived on Tuesday.

Dodelson is what's known in birding circles as a chaser -- someone who'll drop what they're doing at a moment's notice and fly anywhere to see a particular species they want to check off on their bird list.

''It's something to do,'' Dodelson said. ''I'm retired so I have the time, and if the stock market doesn't crash I'll still have a little money to do it.''

The sighting is causing a stir within birding circles because the lesser whitethroat was so far astray. Within 24 hours of being spotted by New Jersey bird expert Paul Lehman, Internet chat rooms that focus on rare bird spottings were atwitter, said Will Russell, owner of Wings, a bird watching tour company based in Tucson, Ariz.

''It's quite an amazing record,'' said Thede Tobish, a former bird guide from Anchorage who works in the city planning department.

Common in parts of Europe and central Eurasia, the lesser whitethroat winters in the Indian subcontinent. Strong winds blowing from Russia may have pushed the bird off course. Or its internal migratory compass may have somehow gotten mixed up, Lehman said.

Eurasian vagrants or accidentals, as these lost birds are called, are often juveniles that have yet to hone their navigational skills. They usually don't survive long after they get disoriented and wind up hundreds or thousands of miles from where they belong, said Dan Gibson, an ornithologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Gibson said he's reserving judgment on the authenticity of the sighting until he sees pictures or video. What he would really like is a specimen, but Lehman didn't kill the bird. Or collect it, as birders say.

''Until these reports are substantiated, I don't pay any attention,'' Gibson said.

Lehman, a renowned bird guide, consultant and former editor of Birding magazine, said he's positive it was a lesser whitethroat sitting atop on old pile of whale bones. He said the digital images taken will no doubt be authenticated by a committee of experts in Alaska.

Lehman leads bird-watching tours throughout North America for Wings. He has spent the last few autumns in Gambell, watching the fall migration and leading tours. Gambell, Nome, the Pribilof Islands and the Western Aleutians are world-class birding spots because of the variety and vast numbers of exotic species that migrate through, birders said.

Lehman scored another first-ever sighting recently in Gambell. On the last Sunday in August, he and a group of clients spotted a willow warbler, a species abundant in Europe but never before seen in North America. Like the lesser whitethroat, the willow warbler was way off course, much father east than it should have been.

Although Dodelson flew more than 4,000 miles to chase a bird he didn't end up seeing, he wasn't too disappointed. He got to check off two new species on his bird list: a little bunting and a dusky warbler. His spur-of-the-moment jaunt from Jersey to Gambell is one of several he's taken since the mid-1990s.

Dodelson admits he's ''spent a ton'' to feed his birding habit and rack up a list that now numbers close to a 800 species. In Dodelson's opinion, it's money well-spent.

''I like the chase.''

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