Monday, June 16, 2008

St. Paul Itself

I am going to digress a bit to write about the Pribilof experience. Birding here requires a little bit of fortitude and a lot of patience and flexibility. The village itself is small with about 125 families, mostly of Aluet origin. There is only one store which has a little bit of everything, including food, furniture and ATVs. Prices are very high, as everything has to be flown in. There is an odd liquor store of sorts which sells beer and wine. The wine selection isn't exactly extensive and, again, the prices are atrocious. (I was desperate enough to pay $15 for a $5 bottle of wine.) There is also a bar, but from what I hear, the locals are not very welcoming to outsiders there.

The only hotel is a prefab structure at the airport. The rooms are small, though comfortable, but most important, there are shared bathrooms. No matter how early I got up to shower somebody else had gotten up earlier. Shades of high school gym class! Some of the other guests wandered the hall in various states of undress. Most them should not have been doing this. I am not a big fan of long johns, even on someone with a good body. There were two lounges at the end of the hall with a tv and comfy chairs. The tv actually had a wide array of cable channels. I finally got to see the cinematic classic "Smoking Aces". (Dan and I agreed that the "karate kid" was the best character in a very odd movie.)

There are no trees on St. Paul, unless you count the ankle high willow that grows in various places. Tundra covers the entire island, except for the lakes and lava flows. Tundra is not the easiest walking. I always imagined it was spongy and soft. It can be somewhat spongy, but its far from soft in many places. I once heard someone say its like walking on bowling balls covered with grass. That's a pretty good analogy. In some places you jump from tuft to tuft. In other places you walk between the tufts. The Pribilofs are volcanic in origin, so there are also a lot of chunks of lava. In some places there is a lot more lava than grass. It is difficult to walk on dry land and even more difficult to "stomp" the marshes, where the water can be almost knee high, but with the same stuff underneath. My knees screamed in pain the last part of the week. It became difficult to even get in and out of the van.

We were really lucky with the weather. In late May/early June the temperature averages about 38 for the high. Its usually rainy or at least cloudy. Most of the days we actually had some sun. Fog can be a serious problem, not allowing flights in and out. One of the birders on the island while we were there had to stay an extra day due to fog. This is something to take into account. St. Paul Tours recommends adding an extra day on in Anchorage just in case. I can tell you, we looked at the sky anxiously when we got up the last day. It can be brutally windy, which is magnified if you are on the beach. Any kind of shelter was welcome.

Despite all of these discomforts, I liked St. Paul. There is a desolate beauty there. Its so foreign, after living in Texas for so long. I loved the beaches and the lonely hills. The town itself is charming, with a tiny Russian Orthodox church dominating the hill. Houses are painted gaudily, defying the cold grayness. I would love to see it in mid summer when the tundra is ablaze with wild flowers. I recommend it, if you are up to the challenge!

Friday, June 13, 2008

The OTHER birds of St. Paul

Before I start on the non-seabird birds on St.Paul, I want to talk about one more cliff nesting species, Northern Fulmar. We didn't see the nesting Fulmars the first day, as they seem to prefer one particular area of the cliffs that we didn't visit. Fulmars are what is commonly called a "tube nose". They spend most of their lives out on the open ocean. Because of the salt water they have a tube on the top of their bill that helps them expel the salt. I have only seen them on pelagic (deep sea) birding trips. It was so cool to see nesting on the cliffs with the kittiwakes. Here is one of my photographs of them.

I have heard the Pribilofs called the Galapagos of the North because of the way the native wild life has evolved. The Rosy-finches are a good example of this. I have seen Gray-crowned Rosy-finches in Washington state. They are cool looking birds, a dusky pink with a gray head. They are large for finches, but the ones on St. Paul dwarf the main land birds! Every time I saw them I thought they looked pigeons. They are probably the most visible bird on the island, perching everywhere there are manmade structures, but also on the rocks and ledges.

Another bird that has evolved a bit differently on the island is the Rock Sandpiper. They are all over the place, displaying and calling. The call is hard to describe.They have much more white in their wings and tail than a regular Rock Sandpiper. In fact, the first time I saw one fly I thought it was a Snow Bunting! They are also larger. Its possible they may be declared a separate species in the future. Being a lazy bunch, birders often just call them Rock Sand, which inevitably inspires someone to sing in a bad Sting like falsetto "ROCCCCCKKKK SAND! You don't have to put on a red light" We are also a lame bunch when it comes to humor.

There is a sub-species of Winter Wren that is also found breeding on the island. They used to be quite common on St. Paul, but now are a bit harder to find. We did succeed in finding a couple of them singing, in the quarry. The birds there are also larger (am I seeing a pattern here?) and paler. They are also found on some of the Aleutian island. Its another type that may be accorded full species status in the future.

A lot of migrant ducks find their way to St. Paul. (My brother will be pleased to hear this, as he refers to all the birds we look for as ducks) It was a bit frustrating to have the guides say "Oh wow! There is a Northern Shoveler! That's a really good bird here" when we see thousands of them in Texas. Northern Pintails are the most common duck, followed by the Green-winged Teal types. Both the North American Green-winged Teal and the Eurasian Common Teal are found in good numbers on the island. What is frustrating is there are hybrids of every possible combination. This complex is considered two separate species in Europe, but the American Ornithological Union is dragging its feet on splitting them here. I can understand their hesitancy after seeing so many hybrids.

One unwelcome animal is the rat. Rats would have a devastating effect on the breeding birds and the local government is doing everything they can to keep them off of St. Paul. There are barral traps all over town. Town government trucks have big signs saying NO RATS ON ST. PAUL. Its great to see them working so hard to preserve the wild life. They do occasionally catch one, but so far they have succeeded in keeping them at bay.

I will finish my posts on St. Paul either Sunday or Monday. We are doing some birding this weekend!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The wildlife of St. Paul Island

Ok, ok, I know its disappointing, but I am not going to tell you about the crazy nightlife on St. Paul. What happens in St. Paul, stays in St. Paul, as far as that stuff goes. What I do want to talk about are the birds and the mammals of St. Paul.

After breakfast on the first morning we headed to the breeding bird colonies on the cliffs at Tolstoi and Zapadni Points. I think this was the high light of my stay on the island. The cliffs are not especially high, maybe a couple of hundred feet. They are rugged and full of niches and shelves and everyone of those niches and shelves was occupied by a nesting bird.

There are three types of birds that use these cliffs, gulls, cormorants and alcids. Everyone knows what gulls are. Cormorants are a water bird with a long neck and bill. There are a number of species of Cormorants all over the world. Alcids are sea birds which I think are the northern hemisphire's answer to penguins. They are mostly black and white. They swim under water. A lot of them like the cold. They are a little different in that most of them are much smaller than penguins and most importantly, they can fly. Puffins are the best known type of alcid.

There were tens of thousands of Least Auklets. They were very tame, allowing close approach by those taking photos. They were shoulder to shoulder all along the top ridge of the first cliff we came to. I can't believe I was worried that we wouldn't see one of these birds. They are 6 1/4" long, the same size as a House Sparrow, but a little bit chubbier. I hate to use this word, but they were cute.

There were two other species of Auklets: Parakeet and Crested. When I first got serious about birding I would look at my field guide and ache to see these birds. They are really bizarre looking with stubby bright orange bills that make the birds look like they are smiling. Cresteds have this amazing deely-bopper right above the bill, almost like the deely-bopper on a California Quail, but more elaborate. (For the none birders reading this, please excuse my use of serious ornithological terms like deely-bopper) Parakeet Auklets have wild looking white feathers behind the eye, bending in an arc along their head. The odd plumage and the goofy smile make them look absolutely crazy! Parakeet Auklets are much more common. It was treat every time we saw a Crested.

Their are also two species of Murres, one of the larger alcids, Common and Thick-billed. They are the birds that look the most like penguins, standing upright on the cliffs. Common Murres are found all along the northern part of both coasts in the lower 48. Thick-billed are much less common, usually being much further north. They were some of the most plentiful birds. There are also two species of Puffins, Tufted and Horned. Almost all of these birds were new for me.

Also nesting on the cliffs were Martin's main target bird, Red-legged Kittiwake. Kittiwakes are gulls and again there were two species, Black-legged and Red-legged. Both actually nest on St. Paul, but Black-legged are pretty easy to find elsewhere in the United States. Red-legged are almost a purely arctic bird and rarely come further south than the Aleutian Islands. Both are elegant looking gulls, pristine white and striking black and gray. Most gulls are white and black and gray, but Kittiwakes always look more put together to me.

Its difficult to describe the experience of being on these cliffs. The sound of all the calls and the movement of birds back and forth to the sea are overwhelming. When I scanned with my binoculars I kept seeing more and more. This is really trite, but it is like being in the middle of a National Geographic special. Its a good feeling to see the large numbers.

The other residents of the island include a large colony of Northern Fur Seals and a good number of Stellar's Sea Lions. The breeding colony of Fur Seals at one time numbered in the millions. Unfortunately their numbers are dropping every year. They had just arriving on the island when we got there. The males get there first. The beach masters, as they are called, weigh over 650 lbs. They are dangerous animals who kill a few people every year. (I am willing to bet that alcohol is involved in some of these unfortunate incidents) The males roar and challenge each other. After the female arrive they spend their days fighting and mating, if they are lucky. The females were just starting to arrive the day we left. They are substantially smaller and more graceful than the males and live much longer, as they don't spend their days fighting. They drop their calves when they arrive and then get pregnant again immediately.

The other mammals that I was fascinated by were the Arctic Foxes. The Pribilof foxes are a sub-species of the nominate Arctic Fox. They differ from the other foxes in that they do not change color from dark to white in the winter. They remain the same color all year. Even more interesting, their coats can range from almost white to a dark blue. Some are beige, some are almost red. They are quite common all over the island, even in town. They were shedding their winter coats, so some of them looked a bit disreputable. There is some disease prevalent in the foxes in town that causes lameness. The town foxes definitely looked worse than the ones along the shore and in the hills.

More on the other birds tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

St. Paul Island

As I said in my first blog on Alaska, I am not going to do a day by day blog. I thought it would be better to do some general impression writing instead. Our time on St. Paul was a mixed bag, for sure. We had some amazing birds and some disheartening misses. Physically it was more grueling than expected. I do want to say that I took away some wonderful memories.

St. Paul sits in the Bering Sea, 765 miles from Anchorage. Its one of the 5 Pribilofs, fairly young volcanic islands. There are rolling hills covered with tundra, sea side cliffs, rock beaches and natural wet lands and lakes. I did not see a single tree, though there are ankle high willows growing through the grass. The weather in May/June is usually cloudy and rainy with heavy fog occasionally. The temperature averaged about 38 as a high. There is a small village, also called St. Paul with mostly frame houses, some painted extravagantly bright colors. A lovely small Russian Orthodox Church sits on the hill above the main part of the town. There is one store, one bar and one place to buy beer and wine. Its not what most people picture as a real vacation hot spot. Despite its desolateness, I found it beautiful, particularly the beaches and cliffs.

The Pribilofs are prime areas for breeding alcids. cormorants and gulls. A number of these birds are difficult to find any where else in North America. St. Paul also has a propensity for Asian migrant birds, which allows one to build a life list that inspires envy among other birders. We came to see both groups. We did very well with the first group, not so much with the second.

The conditions can be tough. We walked across lava fields, around big rocks and tussocks of grass, through almost knee deep water, over rock beaches and up and down a very long stair case to get our meals. (Believe me, I dreaded that climb twice a day!) The King Eider hotel was spartan at best, with shared bathrooms, but comfortable beds. You get to know your fellow birders pretty well! Tomorrow I will write about the actual birds!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Anchorage and the trip to St. Paul

Despite our rather late night, we got up early to go birding again with Martin's friend Dave. He very kindly picked us up at the hotel and we headed out for Chugach State Park, the largest state park in North America with 500,000 acres. Before we even got to the park, we had a great sighting. On the edge of town we saw a line of cars stopped along the access road to the highway. There in the middle of the road was a very pregnant Moose, in no hurry to go anywhere. We slowed as we passed and watched as she easily stepped over the guard rail and moved off. This was a deer you really wouldn't want to hit with a car! I added a life mammal, Snow-shoe Hare on our way up to park. I had ached to see one of these as a child, so I was very excited.

We arrived at the park and started up the trail to Flat Top Mountain. There was still a little snow around, but the temperature was very pleasant. We had singing Lincoln Sparrows along the path. I see many Lincoln Sparrows here every year, but I don't recall ever hearing them sing like they did there. Ruby-crowned Kinglets were also chiming in. I do hear them sing here, but that song is more like a whisper, where this was full out, top of the lungs shouting. Its amazing what hormones can do. There were also Golden-crowned Sparrows, Common and a single Hoary Redpoll and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows. Wilson's Snipes were winnowing all around us, another sound I have never heard.

Our main target was Willow Ptarmigan, a life bird for Dan, and a North American bird for me. I had seen Red Grouse in Scotland a couple of years ago, which is con-specific with Willow, though it doesn't turn white in the winter. Dave played a tape so we would know what to listen for. Finally we heard a bird call rather close to us. Dan was able to get on it and I saw the white and red bird fly up the hill. We were quite satisfied.

Our last stop before heading the airport was Hilltop Park to look for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpecker, along with Spruce Grouse. Our time was a bit limited, as our flight left at noon for St Paul. We walked a loop trail and Martin and I cut through the pines, but didn't see any of the three birds. We did hear a tantalizing call at one point and Dan saw a woodpecker fly out of a dense pine. The call sounded very much like a Black-backed, but we could never refind the bird. We decided to return when we came back to Anchorage.

We arrived at the airport and checked in for our flight to St. Paul. We were relieved to see the plane was a SAAB turbo-prop. Pen Air flies only prop planes and some of them do not have rest rooms. Luckily the SAAB does. I decided to celebrate with a cup of coffee! There was a group of 8 birders from Border Land Tours in AZ, led by Rick Taylo also flying in. We chatted a bit and waited for the plane to load. Finally it was time and we all squeezed on board.

The flight to St Paul is spectacular. We flew over vast ranges of snow covered mountains, volcanoes, glacier and finally the Bering Sea. The plane was fairly comfortable. Martin and I were lucky enough to get an exit row seat with the life rafts bundled up in front of us. If the plane ditched, we would have first dibs! Martin quickly found out that they frown on using the life rafts as an ottoman. (Luckily, he was the one that caught! I had just taken my feet down when the flight attendant walked by.)

As we approached St. Paul it became cloudy, something I expected, as I had heard that the weather is almost always cloudy and rainy at best. I anxiously watched for land as we descended through the cloud cover. The first glimpse of the island showed it to still have some snow cover on the hills, but most of the tundra was open. We landed on the new air strip very smoothly. When we unload the sun was sort of peaking out, which was a lot better than rain!

We were met by the head guide, Dylan as we got off the plane. The first thing I said was "Whats on the island????" He grinned and said a Gray Wagtail (extremely rare) and a breeding plumaged Ruff! I have only seen a Reeve, so a breeding plumaged male was very much wanted! We checked in to our rather spartan hotel, which is connected to the airport and immediately loaded onto the bus to start birding. Anticipation was high. The first bird of the trip was one of the ENORMOUS Gray-headed Rosy-finches found on the Pribs. It looked like the size of a pigeon to me!

Because of the time and the distance we could not try for both birds before dinner, which was rather regimented. (More on that later) We decided to try for the Ruff, as it was closer. We drove to the wetlands near Plovina Lake and piled out. We scanned the area where the Ruff had been earlier in the day, but had no luck. We did our first stomp around the wet land, but had little luck, only putting up Pin-tails. I did get a good look at a Common Teal, which is considered con-specific with Green-winged Teal, but is counted as a seperate species in Europe. This was a bird I had seen in England, but I was happy to get a North American one. I will talk more about these birds in a later blog.

We climbed back in the van and headed back to have dinner at the Trident Sea Food Processing Plant. as there is no restaurant on St. Paul. As we arrived, Cameron Cox, one of the other guides, who we happened to already know, ran up and said "I just found a Common Sandpiper!" He said the bird had flown up the hill behind us to the diesel tanks above the sea food plant. We piled back in the bus and drove up as quickly as we could on the winding road. We parked a little ways off and got out, only to see the bird fly back down the hill to the plant. Back in the van and back down the winding road we went. We got out again and this time we all got a look at this Eurasian bird, which bears a great resemblance to our Spotted Sandpiper. It even has the same flight pattern, just no spots. We were quite pleased and went in for dinner.

Dinner was an amazing surprise. The food was spectacular! We all finished and went back down to the bus, to go look for the wagtail and the Ruff. Cameron said the Ruff had been on Webster Lake near Northeast Point at the same time we had been looking for it. Unfortunately it was not there. Cameron had said that it was actively feeding and probably had taken off to fly north. I was not happy, but still had the wagtail to look forward to. We did get a Snowy Owl as a conselation prize near the lake.

We started down a rather narrow dirt road to the area where the wagtail had been seen that morning. The road was a bit wet from melting snow and was a little dodgey. I noticed what I thought was dust coming up from under the wheels. Then I realized it was too wet to be dust. Someone said "Do I smell smoke?" Dylan stopped the van and got out. Smoke was pouring out from under the front of the bus. This was not good. We looked under the front and some kind of liquid was pouring out from under the bus. This was even worse. We were several miles from the hotel and it was a very desolate spot.

We saw a car coming up the hill towards us. In it were two people from the island who were just out for a ride. Dylan stopped them, told them our situation and they said they would take him back for another van. He advised the group, which consisted of Martin, Dan, Lynn Barber from Fort Worth and myself, along with the 8 people from Border Land Tours. He said he would be back in about 45 minutes and gave us the choice to wait on the bus or start walking back to the airport. Martin and I and a few others decided to stay on the bus. The rest of the group said they would walk, as they could bird their way back. True to his word, Dylan was back with a van in 45 minutes. The group on the bus got the best seats. We picked up the walkers and went back to the hotel.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Alaska, the journey.

I finally got to visit Alaska! Martin and I, along with our very good friend Dan, flew up to Anchorage on May 25, flew to St. Paul Island, part of the Pribilof Islands in the Berring Sea the next day for 5 days, went back to Anchorage for 3 more days and came home June 3. It was an exhausting trip with many high points and a couple of low points, one being extremely low. I normally do these blogs as a day by day experience. I am going to write this one a little differently, as the days on St. Paul were all pretty much the same and are running together in my mind.

Martin and I left out of Dallas mid-day on the 25th. Our plans called for us to meet Dan in Minneapolis and then fly on the Anchorage, arriving at about 7pm. There were storms and possible tornados predicted for the Minneapolis area, so we were a bit concerned. Our flight got in without a hitch, but I had a voice mail on my phone from Dan saying that he had not been so lucky. His flight to Minneapolis had been cancelled and he had been re-routed through Chicago and wouldn't arrive in Anchorage until after 11pm. We kept a nervous eye on the sky, but nothing developed and our flight took off on time. The pilot announced that we were having to fly around some weather and would be a few minutes late, but it was no big deal. The next day I found out that a tornado hit a suburb of Minneapolis less than an hour after we left, killing a person, so we truly dodged a bullet!

We had an long uneventful flight, on which I pulled different books and my I-pod out of my carrier bag. The vistas below the plane changed from flat farm land to green mountains to snow capped mountains to glacier covered mountains. It was breathtaking, to be cliched.

We landed, picked up our luggage and went to the courtesy phone to get the van to our hotel. I called the hotel and no one answered. Not good. I left a message, but knew that wasn't going to cut it. I called back in a couple of minutes and the front desk clerk answered. I asked about the shuttle and she said "Oh, the shuttle driver called in. You will have to take a cab." I was pissed and let her know. She was very sweet and said "Its ok, just have the driver come in and we will pay him". We grabbed a cab and headed over. The hotel was decent, nothing special, but it looked clean and the lobby was ok.

The clerk asked for my credit card and I reached into my bag. It wasn't in the pocket I usually keep it in. My gut dropped a bit, but this is a huge bag. It was in there. It had to be. I checked the main part of the bag, I checked the side pocket. I checked the other side pocket. I checked the zipper compartment. I even checked the cell phone pocket. No wallet. I was exhausted from the flight and I was fighting hysteria. Martin handed the girl his card and she was very sweet. She gave me a phone number for Northwest Airlines and we lugged our gear upstairs.

I called Northwest and the agent was great. He called both airports and left messages. He told me they would call back shortly. I still didn't feel great, to say the least. I hung up and started calling credit card companies. I had just gotten Amex, when my cell phone rang. I was a ground agent at Northwest, advising me they found the wallet on the plane!!! I couldn't believe it. I told him we would be at the airport in the morning, but he said he would bring it by to the hotel, as it was close by, when he got off of work at 11pm. I was stunned. I am constantly disappointed by customer service people. This was incredible.

We relaxed for a minute, while Martin called his friend, Dave, one the best birders in the state. It was only about 8pm, so he came by and picked us up to go birding for a little while. I was so shaken and tired that I remember very little of it, except seeing a dipper nest. We got back to the hotel at about 10pm, with the sun still brightly shining. We went upstairs and I waited for the guy from Northwest. About 11pm I went downstairs and was fooling around on the computer in the lobby. I looked up to see Dan walking in. I was so glad to see that he made it. Right after he arrived the guy from Northwest walked in with my wallet. He handed me the wallet, while Dan said "Hey! Make her show some ID before you give it to her" The guy laughed and said he had already looked and even though my hair is a different color, he recognized me. I went up to bed and despite it still being light, I fell asleep.