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Posts Tagged ‘St. Paul Island’

The Pribilof Islands host more than 2.5 million nesting seabirds each year, mostly on St. George, which has the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. But fog makes travel to St. George unpredictable with frequent delays and cancelled flights. So, after our return from Nome, we flew to St. Paul Island on June 14th.  The island has a human population of about 500 and an avian population of nearly 200,000 in late spring. The regular breeding seabirds of St. Paul include about a dozen species of murres, auklets, kittiwakes, puffins, Red-faced Cormorant, and Northern Fulmar. Close-up views of these birds are enough to delight any birder. In addition, Siberian vagrants predictably show up on St. Paul. Predictable does not mean that you have any idea which rare birds will show up; just that it is very likely that something unusual will appear on the island during any week in spring.

Anchorage to St Paul

The birding routine on St. Paul is the same for everyone. You fly from Anchorage on Pen Air, the only airline that serves St. Paul and St. George Islands. You stay at the King Eider Hotel, the only hotel on the island, and eat at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria, where the folks from The Deadliest Catch also eat. The hotel is basic, but comfortable. Each room has a double bed or two twin beds and the bathrooms are down the hall. The food at the cafeteria is very good. The Alaska Native corporation, TDX, owns over 95% of St. Paul Island, including St. Paul Island Tours, which employs the birding guides. The three birding guides rotate the job of shuttling birders around the island in a bus to the cliffs, lakes, and various birding areas.  In the photo below is Ridge Wall – one of the best places to view nesting seabirds.

Come in a little closer and you can see that all those white dots on the edges of the cliff are birds.  Those below are mostly Thick-billed Murres.

On our second full day, Scott Schuette had taken us to several birding spots around the island. Mid-afternoon, we were on our way back to the hotel for a bathroom break when Scott announced “The pit stop is cancelled. Alison just found a Hawfinch.” Hawfinch is a rare Asian visitor to the Pribilofs and it would be a life bird for most of us including Bill. We drove as fast as the dirt roads would allow to the Tim’s Pond area in hopes of seeing this rarity. Scott stopped on the road closest to the area where Alison had seen the bird and we starting trekking over the tundra. Most of the birders in our group saw the Hawfinch as it flew overhead several times. I did not; I just couldn’t get on it in flight. But, we were lucky and finally got it in the scope when it landed on the ground. It wasn’t a great look, but one that I could count. Alison tells a very interesting story about this day in her blog post, A Lifer for Bill.

I was not able to get a photo of the Hawfinch, but I did get photos of some nesting seabirds.  What could be cuter than this pair of Tufted Puffins?

Tufted Puffins

Tufted Puffins

Least Auklets are pretty cute, too.

Least Auklets

Two other species of auklets nest on the island, the Parakeet Auklets shown in the photo below and Crested Auklets.  We saw all three species.

Parakeet Auklets

Parakeet Auklets

And, here are those Thick-billed Murres again, really close-up.  This is the most common nesting seabird on St. Paul Island.

Thick-billed Murres

Thick-billed Murres

St. Paul is the largest of the Pribilof Islands with a total area of 43 square miles. The typical temperature in June is in the low 40s and the high wind and humidity give the summer air a raw chilliness.

Arctic LupineAmazingly, three small songbirds are year-round residents in this harsh climate of St. Paul Island – Winter Wren, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Snow Bunting. One additional songbird joins them for the breeding season – Lapland Longspur. The other avian life on the island consists of mostly seabirds, ducks, and shorebirds.

The landscape is marine tundra; there are no trees. Arctic Lupine and Wild Celery grow all over the island. Despite its name, the Wild Celery in Alaska bears no resemblance to the edible vegetable celery, although it is a valuable food for wildlife. The image to the left is a postcard that depicts the lupine exactly like it looked most mornings on St. Paul.

The Rosy-Finches were one of my favorite species of the entire trip.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

And, how their looks change with just a little puffing up and a different perspectve!

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

The Rock Sandpipers were another of my favorite St. Paul Island breeding birds.

Rock Sandpiper

Rock Sandpiper

One afternoon, I enjoyed some time with Red-necked Phalaropes at a little pond while the others trekked further out over the tundra.  Phalaropes are fascinating birds.  They are known for spinning in circles to flush small aquatic prey to the water’s surface where they can easily pluck it with their bills.  Also, phalaropes exhibit what scientists call “reverse sexual dimorphism” which simply means that the girls are prettier than the boys.  The typical courtship and parental roles are also reversed in phalaropes.  Females fight ferociously over males.  After they are paired up, the male builds a simple nest in which the female lays four eggs.  And, then she flies away leaving the male to incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks after they hatch.

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Red-necked Phalarope (female)

Several other birds bounced around the edges of the little pond with the phalaropes, including Semipalmated Plovers.  This species is familiar to most birders due to its wide wintering range, including the southern part the U.S. mainland coasts, but it breeds in Alaska and northern Canada.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Our four day/three night stay on St. Paul Island was over all too quickly.  All three of our birding guides, Scott Schuette, Cory Gregory, and Alison Vilag, were excellent birders and took great efforts to ensure that we saw all the birds on the island and had good looks at everything.  We couldn’t have asked for more, except maybe to go back again!

Heading to lunch at the Trident cafeteria

Heading to lunch at the Trident Seafoods cafeteria

Next in my adventure – Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park

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