Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Pribilofs

Your blogger, standing at the summit of cliffs 200 feet above the Bering Sea. Our crew spent three days out here, on the largest of the four islands that make up the Pribilofs, St. Paul Island. About 438 people live here, and the place is best known as a port of call for crabbing boats featured on the TV show Deadliest Catch.

Birders know St. Paul as a fabulous place to catch Siberian and Eurasian vagrants. Some years are better than others for that, and this has been a very lean spring for rarities. I could care less - the island is packed with incredible birds, and I'll share a few that were breeding on the cliffs behind me.

The most numerous of the alcids - penguin-like seabirds of the northern hemisphere that still have the power of flight - is the Least Auklet. Many thousands nest on St. Paul. They aren't the flashiest of the alcids, as we'll see, but this species is my favorite. They are only six inches long - same as a Lapland Longspur! - but cope well with the severe elements in this part of the world. Platoons would fly by, skimming the roaring surf, dropping into the frigid water and bobbing about as if it were the tropics.

Parakeet Auklets were everywhere, sporting a day-glo red bill and a flashy white eye plume. I spent some time laying on my belly on the summit of the cliffs, peering over at the birds, who in turn would peer curiously back at me. This one was only 15 feet or so away, and completely unbothered by me.

The eye of a Parakeet Auklet looks like a perfect white button, and lends a completely inscrutable look to the animal.

A Crested Auklet shares a rock with a Least Auklet. The sooty-gray cresteds sport an odd comb-like crest, anchored above a bright orange bill. Like the other auklets in the genus Aethia, it has a bright white eye.

Without doubt the "cutest" of the alcids are the Horned Puffins. They have a very gentle, winsome look, created by that little black horn over the eye. Note its very erect posture - alcids' feet are located far back on the body. This is great for underwater dives, allowing the birds to swim like fish and run down piscine prey, but necessitates an upright bearing when on land.

Big and mostly black, the Tufted Puffin is a striking bird. Like the others, it nests on small rocky ledges and in recesses high on windswept cliffs overlooking the sea. Such locations keep them out of harm's way. St. Paul is full of Arctic Foxes, but even as agile as these mammals are, they can't gain access to sites like this.

I watched this puffin for some time. He was unconcerned with me, and it was interesting to watch him lying on a ledge 150 feet above the rocky shore, looking around mellowly at the great sea and taking in all of the action around him. Seabird colonies are a riot of sound, smell, and activity, with birds constantly coming and going, calling to greet mates, scold intruders, and always the freight train roar of the crashing surf. The puffin appeared unfazed by it all.

A trio of Common Murres share a ledge. Both this species and the Thick-billed Murre are common here.

Thick-billed Murre. It differs from the species above by that white whisker mark, and it is also blacker above.

Visiting St. Paul Island wouldn't be for everyone. The weather, even in mid-June, is raw and blustery, and drizzle can be a near constant. Temperatures stayed in the 30's-low 40's, and the sun almost never showed in the three days I was there. Fog was nearly perpetual, and caused the the next two airplane flights to the island after ours to be canceled, as the pilots couldn't see well enough to land. That was especially unfortunate to us, as our luggage had been bumped from our flight due to weight limitations, and was to arrive the next day. We never got it - just picked it up back at the Anchorage airport when we returned.

But any hardships are small potatoes in exchange for the opportunity to see the explosion of life during the all too brief Bering Sea summer.


Patty M. said...

Thanks, Jim! Your photos were awesome and educational. I hope I can someday visit AK, too. Looking forward to more of your trip postings.

Kathy said...

Beautiful pictures! I like the orange-breasted-black-boot the best. LOL

Buford Nature said...

It is such a treat to be accepted by wildlife.

nina said...

You know you're in a wonderfully wild place when the native life hasn't yet learned to fear man.
Awesome pictures, Jim.

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