Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Little Devils of St. Paul

This second installment of my trip to the Pribilofs shows the somewhat picturesque village of st. Paul, dominated by the historic Russian Orthodox church.
The big draw for birders to St. Paul are the many alcids that nest all around the coast. Puffins, murres, and auklets can be seen in many places in the Pacific Northwest but the Pribilofs are one of the best places to get close to many species of them. The alcids that are featured in the first part of this post are the smallest of them all.
The photo above shows a flock of Least Auklets as they arrive to their nesting area.
Least Auklets don't fight for space along the cliffs with their larger cousins. They nest under the boulders along this rocky beach. You can hop from boulder to boulder and listen to the constant chattering of the auklets under your feet.
When we first approached the beach  most of the birds near us flew away. We sat down on a convenient rock and waited quietly. Soon the Least Auklets returned. Our guide Doug told us that if we sat still enough, they would even land on us. These guys are about the size of a grosbeak.
I made a comment about how adorable these little guys are. Doug said that their pale staring eyes made them look demonic to him. I'm pretty sure that the third one on the left is the spawn of Satan himself. The rest of them are just cute.
"Don't call me cute. Worship me or I will destroy you!"
The real demons on the beach, at least for the Least Auklets, are the Arctic Foxes that roam the beach waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
The other big inhabitants that share the beaches are Northern Fur Seals. There are several colonies of them around the island. They don't confine themselves to the beach; they even climb well up onto the slopes near the coast.
There are a few blinds, (hides), where people can observe the seals up close. The blinds are not there to conceal people, they are more of a refuge to protect people from the aggressive bulls.
Forty or fifty years ago, there were well over a million Fur Seals on St. Paul Island. Now there are about ten thousand. Their population has dropped steadily by about six percent a year. If this rate continues, Northern Fur Seals will be extinct in about twenty years. What are the state and federal government doing about it? Mostly just wringing their hands.
 Researchers have been studying the decline for decades. What is the cause of this disaster. Biologists have reached a consensus that the commercial Pollock industry is the culprit. Alaskan fishing boats are carefully regulated but foreign, i.e. Asian factory trawlers observe no law. Don't eat Pollock, I do not.  Pollock is commonly used in fish sticks and fish sandwiches at fast food restaurants.
Many mature bulls carry scars from their frequent fights. There is plenty of room for them all. They prefer to fight each other for dominance. They will even fight you if you get too close.

An even larger cousin of the Fur Seal; Steller's Sea Lions occur in much lower numbers on St. Paul. Their population is also in deep trouble because of over fishing for Pollock. The bird in the back is a Pelagic Cormorant. We also saw Harbor Seals and Orcas in the waters off the island. 
 More St. Paul, and less preaching to come.

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.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Tom Breaks the World Record

This is not some hokey Guiness world record like balancing bowling balls on your head; this is a truly historic event. I'll get to that in a moment.
 The photo above depicts Tom Choate in Uganda a few years ago.
I have known Tom for six or eight years. We have birded locally in Alaska a number of times and we traveled together to South Africa and Uganda for a month in each place.
During these long trips Tom mentioned that he enjoys climbing mountains and that he has traveled to many countries to climb the local peaks. He mentioned that he teaches classes in the summer and trains would be mountain climbers.
Here he observes some Nyala in South Africa in the photo above.
Tom ignores giraffes in the photo above. They were looking for some obscure little brown bird instead.
Tom and Gary in front of our humble lodging in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda.
Mt. Mckinley is one of the most difficult mountains to climb in the world. It is on the bucket list of all serious climbers. Many mountain climbers die on it's slopes every year. I lost three young friends on this deadly mountain some years ago. It is not technically difficult like some peaks. The crazy weather, relentless cold, and treacherous avalanches are what claims so many lives.
What Tom never bothered to mention during his discussions about his climbing career was that he climbed Mt. Mckinley way back in 1963. That was when there was no base camp, no Park Service, and more importantly, no possibility of rescue should things go badly.
 Tom in Uganda above, birding the ruins of a grand resort that was destroyed by political strife years before.
Tom also never mentioned that he climbed Mckinley in 1973, 1983, 1993, and 2003. Do you see a pattern forming here? Guess what year it is now?
Well Tom is now 78 years old. I think he may be the oldest person that I know.
He just got back from another successful climb of Mt. Mckinley.
That makes him the oldest person to climb Denali, The Great One. The previous record holder was a 74 year old climber from Japan. Will he return to Alaska to try to beat Tom's record? I doubt that any one will ever beat Tom's record.
Congratulations Tom!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Back to the Tropics With Dan

The most active volcano in Costa Rica, called Arenal, is usually enshrouded in clouds. This is my favorite part of the country. I have been there three times and have never seen the top. The bird life around there is incredible and it never gets too hot because it is away from the sweltering coast, It rains almost constantly. The land to the north of the volcano is virtually always windy, while the land to the south gets spared. That is where the lovely town of Fortuna is located. Unfortunately it has been discovered by the tourists and has lost some of its charm.
This photo and those that follow are the final, and possibly some of the best photos from Dan Holayter's trip.
Yellow-throated  Euphonia.
A Crimson-fronted Parakeet and a pair of Silver-throated Tanagers enjoy some seeds. Costa Rica is known for its many species of colorful tanagers and parrots. Many are abundant even inside the towns.
Hummingbirds are also quite varied and abundant in Costa Rica. The Violet Sabrewing is one of the largest and prettiest. They are most easily seen at the feeders next to the Hummingbird Gallery near the entrance to Monteverde NP.
The most common species at the Hummingbird Gallery is the Green-crowned Brilliant.
Another view of a Green-crowned Brilliant.
The most common and widespread of the amazon-type parrots, Red-lored Parrot.
An inhabitant of the cloud forest, Emerald Toucanet. This is a female. The male has a longer beak.
A nice close-up of a Black-crowned Night Heron.
A Morpho Butterfly. I think that this is a female. The male lacks the heavy black border along the edges of its wings.
The large and nocturnal, Owl Butterfly. Just check out that complex pattern. Even the crazy eye striping. I may try to paint one someday.
A tiny,(20mm, or seven eights of an inch) Strawberry Dart Frog in a bromeliad.
The Green and Black, or Army Dart Frog is one of the largest of the poison dart frogs although it is only about an inch and a half, (40mm) long.
As far as I can determine, this is a Smilisca Phaeota. A type of tree frog. I do not know if it even has a common English name. Notice the cricket below it. Dinner perhaps?
This post wraps up the wonderful photos that Dan shot in Costa Rica. He did not really want to go, but his wife and children prevailed. He really did enjoy the trip.