Ahhh, a vacation in the islands. Doesn’t the idea conjure the most heavenly images in your mind? A glorious place so windswept not a single tree grows there, with weather that is consistently foggy, cloudy, rainy and occasionally sleety, and temperatures that can reach highs of 35 degrees—paradise!
Well, at least for birders it is. It’s St. Paul Island, the largest of the Pribilof Islands that stretch out into the Bering Sea, from the southwest corner of Alaska towards Russia, and I just got back from a trip there.
A four-hour flight from Anchorage, the small island is just 40 square miles, and the only residents are about 450 Aleut people (a Native American tribe).
There are no hotels. I slept in a dormitory of sorts that was constructed specifically for birders; it’s just down the hall from the boarding area of the tiny airport. It was clean, warm and quite comfortable.
There are also no restaurants. I ate in the cafeteria of the one industry on the island—a seafood processing plant—everything was delicious.
This time of year, the sun shines 18 hours a day, which means a lot of time to go birding, albeit in miserable weather.
So why go? For the birds, of course, and the other natural history of the island.
It’s one of the many things I love about birding; in my quest to see as many species of birds as possible, I wind up traveling to some of the remotest on earth. The landscapes and the wildlife are breathtaking in these corners of the world, and the experiences are jaw dropping.
For me, that’s what life is about—amazing experiences with amazing people.
The majority of the world’s northern fur seals have their pups on St. Paul every June. I went in May with my friend Oleg, who often provides photographs for this column. We were too soon for the pups, but instead we got to see the “beachmasters” in full action. These are the male seals, that arrive on the island ahead of the females in order to claim their areas of beach.
The 600-pound seals vie for the best places, bellowing, biting and shoving into each other. When not fighting for dominance, they lie about looking like adorable but savage plump Tootsie rolls.
Once the females arrive and give birth, the areas are off limits, but since they hadn’t arrived yet, and we were searching for birds, we found ourselves more than once almost stumbling into the beasts. Talk about beating a hasty retreat!
Other island inhabitants we enjoyed seeing were caribou, originally brought over as a domesticated animal and now roaming free, and Arctic foxes. The foxes arrived on their own, via the ancient land bridge that stretched from Russia to Alaska, which was the believed route of human migration from Eurasia to the Americas.
Although 99 percent of Arctic foxes grow a white coat in winter and a dark blackish-brown coat in summer for camouflage, all of the foxes on St. Paul are of the blue morph. A morph occurs in a species when there are two or more possibilities of a trait on a gene. For example Labrador retrievers can be black, yellow or chocolate. I can’t explain why all the St. Paul foxes are blue, but I do know that they’re captivating to watch.
Of course, the main reason I vacationed on this chilly island was to see birds I’d never seen before, and St. Paul did not disappoint me in that regard. In addition to being a seal rookery, it is also a rookery for 90 percent of the world’s population of red-legged kittiwakes, a small gull with short red legs, yellow bill, dark gray back and a large dark eye that gives it a cute look.
These birds spend most of their lives at sea, foraging particularly at night over deep water. In the spring they nest on cliff faces, laying their eggs, usually one to three of them, on the slimmest outcropping of rock hundreds of feet above the crashing surf.
Nesting nearby among boulders on the beach are other seabirds, such as parakeet and least auklets. These birds are like the penguins of the north. They’re small, black and white, and use their wings mostly to swim, although, unlike penguins, they’re able to fly as well.
Speaking of flying, where will your next flight take you? Will your next vacation take you to obscure places, where you will be awed by the diversity and majesty of the natural world? Well, even if not, the good news is you can find plenty of awe-inspiring places close to home; the trick is just getting out there and exploring.
Go birding. Take an amazing person with you and have an amazing experience. Your life will be richer for it.
Published: Mid Summer 2019 Vol. 11 No. 4