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.

No comments: