Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Remote Pribilofs

Late last night I got home from my latest adventure. Normally I like to go to the tropics on vacation. This time I decided to go in the opposite direction and visit St. Paul Island. It is one of four tiny specks of windswept rock called the Pribilofs. They are found in the middle of the Bering Sea. 
Two of the islands are inhabited, St. George with a population of around 50 people, and St. Paul with about 400 or so people. On St. Paul, the population is centered in the little town of St. Paul, above the small harbor.
Most of the people are the native Aleuts, with an assortment of mostly Philipino fish processors who work at the Trident Seafood facility. In the Summer months there are also a few odd birders and researchers.
I joined a bird tour with a company owned by TDX, the local native corporation. My compatriots were Ann and Jeff, a Welsh couple, and three excellent bird guides, Scott, Cameron, and Doug with St. Paul Tours.
Jeff is the one in the photo above. We stayed in some fairly comfortable rooms at the tiny airport, (there is one flight twice a week), and ate our meals in the cafeteria at the fish processing plant. The smell of fish in there was nearly overpowering.
The weather in the Pribilofs is among the worst weather on earth. In the Summertime temperatures hover between 35 and 45f degrees.  It is always foggy, windy, and rainy, although we saw only occasional rain during our stay. There are no trees and not even any bushes. Also no Mosquitos or butterflies, no rodents, and few species of songbirds. Other than marine mammals, the only mammals are Arctic Foxes, St. Paul Shrews, and introduced Reindeer.
For the cost of this trip I could have gone to Costa Rica instead. So why do birders from around the world go to the Pribilofs? Birds of course. Especially the many thousands of seabirds that nest on the cliffs around the islands. These are Common and Thick-billed Murres in the photo above. Thick-billed Murres can be distinguished by their white lips and the sharp peak of white that extends onto their dark throats.
More murres and a Black-legged Kittiwake. Notice the egg.
One of ten new birds for me on this trip was this Northern Fulmar peeking out of a sheltered alcove. The other bird is a Parakeet Auklet.
It was sometimes a little scary leaning over the edge of the cliff on wet grass in order to photograph seabirds like this Parakeet Auklet.
With little effort a photographer can get great views of birds that are virtually unafraid of people. No doubt this is due to the isolation of their nesting grounds. Notice the complex structure of this Parakeet Auklet's beak. I was envious of the cameras and lenses that Jeff and the guides had. Their photos are so much sharper than mine.
One fat Parakeet Auklet.
Red-faced Cormorants nest in only a few places along the Aleutians and Western Alaska. I believe they nest in some of the corresponding islands along Russia and possible some isolated Japanese Islands. Their numbers are dropping.
The most abundant songbird on the island is the Lapland Longspur. They are all over the island. They have a beautiful song reminiscent of a meadowlark. Lupines are the most prominent flower.
This male was very cooperative for one photo. Too bad the light was always so dim on the island.
This Arctic Fox searches the seaweed for edible tidbits. Since there are no rodents in the Pribilofs, foxes survive by eating birds and their eggs. They also scavenge the carcasses of seals, fish, and other sea creatures.
The foxes are mostly dark chocolate or blue-black. Some are brown and turn white in the Winter. They are fairly abundant all over the island, even in town.
 Stay tuned for much more from St. Paul Island.


Maggie said...

Cool (cold!) trip, John. I love the photo of the four murres in that curving diagonal. It has a great graphic quality.

Camera Trap Codger said...

What a treat! Plus you got a pile of new material. That lapland longspur looks like a cheap imitation of a House Sparrow (LOL).