Sunday, October 14, 2018

Chasing the Rare Birds on St. Paul Island

Many of the birds that we saw on the trip are expected to be there. They are arctic birds that either live on the island or pass through there during migration regularly. But as I eluded to in the last post, those birds are not really the birds that birders go to St. Paul for. Birders go in hopes that birds from Russia and other parts of Europe and Asia get blown over on west winds. Lucky for us, we had 2 days of winds blowing from the west that produced some good "vagrants". We saw a handful that pleased the crowd starting with Olive-backed Pipit.

Olive-backed Pipit
The tough part of the trip for me was that most of the vagrants that we saw were the product of us flushing the bird out of "Putchkie" weeds or flying past so fast that photos were either not possible or really crappy due to the speed of the bird and weather conditions. The Pipit above is just one example.

Another big find for the trip was this Gray-streaked Flycatcher. Again, the bird was flushed from the weeds and barely sat still. Boring little bird from Eurasia but a big find on the island. Look at this lousy photo:

Gray-streaked Flycatcher
While we were looking at this bird, another - even better bird showed up behind us. The bird first landed on the gate across the road but wouldn't sit still long enough for a photo. In fact, the bird took off and we didn't see it again until the next day. And then, only from a distance. Red-flanked Blue-tail is the name of the bird. It is one that I used to look at in field guides and dream of seeing. You can see both the red flank and the blue tail in this photo which is super cropped but identifiable.

Red-flanked Blue-tail
I didn't even get photos of the Brambling or the Eurasian Skylark at all. I managed a few photos of Emperor Goose.

Emperor Goose
And although we saw a few Yellow-billed Loons off the coast, I only managed this shot of one.

Yellow-billed Loon
All of the birders shared sightings and information with everyone else. By the time we left the island, all of the birders had seen the same species. Nobody missed a bird. Having said that - I can say that our group came away from the trip with one special sighting that some of the other birders didn't see . . . the St. Paul Shrew. This little shrew is only found on St. Paul Island and nowhere else. We flipped every piece of wood looking for one. It was a running joke all week with the bird guides. We were so happy to find the rare birds but each time that happened, one of us would say "if only we could find the shrew". And then it happened - I saw one running right down the middle of the gravel road as I was walking back to the van. I yelled "THERE'S THE SHREW! THERE'S THE SHREW!" Of course, everyone thought I was joking until they looked up and watched the little bugger run right under the tire of the van.

Shrew under the tire
We caught the shrew to get a better look. Marty had the great idea of using the cover of his camera lens to make a little corral for the shrew. Check out the schnoz on this shrew.

St. Paul Shrew
The little fella starting shivering so I put him back in the Putchkie to continue with his day. We were one-up on the rest of the birders!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Birds of St. Paul

Now that you are introduced to St. Paul Island, I can tell you about the birds. Our guides keep tabs on birds every day so they know about all of the "common" birds and know how to track down vagrants. We were taken to see the common birds on the island including shorebirds that I was really interested in seeing. First up - Rock Sandpiper. This bird is like our Purple Sandpiper. Very common along the Alaskan coast.


Next up - Gray-tailed Tattler. This bird looks almost exactly like Wandering Tattler so we needed to hear it call to confirm the ID. We also had the luxury of studying both birds on the same log. The Gray-tailed is on the left. Wandering on the right.


Of all the shorebirds, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was one that I really wanted to see. We saw 6 of them a few days in a row but finally got close enough for a photo on the last day. You can see the sharp tail in this pose.


The island has hosted a White-tailed Sea Eagle for a few months. This juvenile eagle should be in Russia or Europe. In fact, I saw one in Poland a few years ago. The bird is larger than our Bald Eagle and likes to hang around the cliffs along the coast. We looked for the bird everyday. It shouldn't be difficult since it was the only eagle around. We finally saw the bird soaring over fields and headed to the coast. Four other birders were on the island specifically to see this bird and this bird only. They were all in the other van and didn't see the bird. We really wanted the others to see the bird so we decided to hike up the cliffs to see if the eagle was on the cliff face. The eagle lifted off from the cliff. It was huge. The ID on the bird is the white back which can be seen in this photo. Everyone got a great look.

White-tailed Sea Eagle
Lots of high-fives and celebration beer ensued after we saw this bird.

Sea Eagle Gang
 Other common birds on the island include Gray-crowned Rosy-finch. These birds like rock piles and are like our House Sparrows. They were all molting so really hideous to look at.

I'm Hideous!
Birds in the fields were mostly Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings.

Lapland Longspur

Snow Bunting
There are not many mammals on the island. The most common (other than the Fur Seals) were Arctic Foxes. We saw them literally everywhere we went.

They were in the grass.

Arctic Fox
 On the jetty in the harbor.

Arctic Fox
In the parking lot along the salt flats.

Arctic Fox
More along the rocks. They are very comfortable around people as you can see here.

Arctic Fox
And even on the beach. These foxes do not turn white like their cousins on the mainland. They keep their dark coats all year since the island doesn't get snow that stays all winter.

Arctic Fox
We found a lot of signs of past lives on our hikes. Here is a Fur Seal skull.

Skull
I found this whale vertebra close to the coast. Yes, it was heavy.

Whale Vertebra
We found this grave site at the high point on Northeast Point. It has been here since 1895 alone on the hill.
Lonesome Grave
We found other markers on the island too. These Orthodox crosses were posted in odd places.

Cross
I found that if I looked at them from a particular angle, they actually formed a line that pointed to a chapel (seen in the distance in the photo) or the to the main Russian Orthodox church in town. Funny that most of the native Alaskans identify as Orthodox Catholics due to the Russian influence. The native Alaskans also use markers from their own culture to mark significant sites. Here is a photo of me and Marty inside the jawbones of a Bowhead whale. The bones probably mark a good fishing or hunting site. We found good birds and came back to the site a few times.

Linda and Marty


Friday, September 28, 2018

The Pribilofs - Islands in the Bering Sea

Alaska has 2 island chains in the Bering Sea. The one that sticks out most is well, the one that sticks out most. That long curved island chain called the Aleutians. Those islands have native names like Attu and Unimak. The other island chain is called the Pribilof. Those islands are named after saints like St. Paul and St. George. After my work was completed, Barbara, Todd and Marty met me in Anchorage where we embarked on a birding quest to St. Paul.

St. Paul Island
St. Paul island is pretty well known among Alaska's birding destinations as a place where birds from Russia and Asia are often found ( I kinda see what Sara Palin was inferring ) The island is an extinct volcano that has NO TREES. None. Nada. The whole island looks like this.

Vast St. Paul
The island was settled first by native Alaskans (we used to call them Eskimos) and then by Russians. The Russians found value in the island from the fur seals that provided fur and meat. Hundreds of thousands of seals used the island for rest and breeding making them easy targets for the hunters. I won't depress you with the details but you can connect the dots about how the seals were on the verge of extinction but the good news is that today, the seals are thriving again. Every beach was loaded with them. Check out the video.


The seals are protected by island wildlife rangers and we abided by the signs and kept our distance for the most part. In some areas, the road came close to the beach and provided us with intimate access to the wonders of the colony. This scene reminded me of the Jersey shore - the adults watching the kids playing in the surf.

Kids on the beach
This bull male was all about scratching himself and lounging around.

Big Daddy
This male and female spent hours courting. She was totally into him and kept poking and biting him so that he paid attention to her.
Beach Date
Meanwhile, this mother spent the afternoon suckling her pup to get him ready for a long hard winter at sea. He will need to gain alot of weight before he embarks on his solitary winter journey.

Intimate Moment
The Fur Seals were very curious about us. This gal was spying us from the harbor.

Curious George-ette
The people who live on the island have gone through rough times in the past but today, they protect the Fur Seals and also responsibly hunt them to provide food and continue their culture.

The island has one main industry which is seafood processing. Fish and crab boats that work in the Bering Sea (think Deadliest Catch) offload their catch in the harbor to be processed and sent to restaurants around the world. Why is all of this relevant? Funny you should ask. The native people have a corporation called TDX. They own the airport, the hotel, and most of the land on the island. They also provide the guides for birding tours. Our little group signed up for the TDX tour which included the flight from Anchorage, hotel, meals, and the birding guides. Sounds great. This is a photo of BOTH the airport AND the hotel.

St. Paul Airport and Hotel
Did I mention that the island doesn't have a restaurant. The hotel doesn't have a restaurant either. The "meals" are served at the fish processing plant. We ate in the commissary along with the workers. Sounds bad right? Wrong! The commissary provided excellent meals. Yes, the atmosphere reminded me of the high school cafeteria but the food was actually good - poached halibut, enchiladas, lasagna, fork-tender roast beef, and (not making this up) cheese blintzes!

Trident Seafood Commissary
The "lunch ladies" (my nickname for the commissary workers) were very nice and proud of the food that they served. This was obvious on the morning when our bird guide got a flat tire (shredded) on his way to pick us up for breakfast. We were stranded at the hotel and missed the breakfast time slot which ended at 8 AM.

Never drive on a flat tire
The guide was frazzled. I suggested that we borrow a pickup truck from another hotel guest and drive into town to get the other van. On the way, I had an idea to go to the commissary to get some "to-go" food. The lunch ladies were so happy to see us that they packed up eggs, sausage, bacon, blintzes (I can't make this up) and biscuits for the crew back at the hotel.

Breakfast is served!
Everyone was happy. Our group weren't the only birders on the island. We shared vans and guides with 3 others in the tour and 2 independent "Big Year" birders.

OK, we didn't just eat and fix flat tires. We actually birded the island. We had target birds that are regulars on the island and hoped for some vagrants too. The guides took us immediately to see some of the regulars including Red-legged Kittiwake. There are only 2 types of Kittiwakes - red-legged and black-legged. The Black-legged Kittiwakes are found on the east coast where we see them regularly but the Reds are only found in the Bering Sea. On St. Paul, you can find both.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Red-legged Kittiwake
 I think even non-birders can nail the ID on these. In case you need to see a comparison, here they are sitting side-by-side. Notice the subtle differences in bill length and head shape? Forget it, just look at the legs.

Red and Black
Many more birds to tell you about in the next post.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Alaska Hatchery - Wildlife and Work

The Salmon hatchery is an interesting operation. Basically, the hatchery fools the fish into thinking that they are going into a stream to spawn (which is the fish's life goal) but they are really going into a holding pen where they are shocked and sent up a conveyor belt for processing.
You can see the holding pen and conveyor belt here. Oh, and one of the black bears that pluck fish out of the pen too.
The "creek"
I feel bad for the fish but when you think about it, the fish basically end up with the same fate as if they actually spawned because they die afterward anyway. The conveyor belt drops the fish in the processing shed where workers cut the female fish open. The roe pours into a bucket and the dead fish are sent sliding down a shoot into a waiting boat for processing into dog food. The males are just sent down the shoot.
Egg Take
The eggs are sent to the incubation room where they are tended in a dark warehouse for a few months. The incubation warehouse has stacks and stacks of shelves with water running over them. Each shelf holds 60,000 eggs and there were hundreds of shelves in the warehouse. You can see the pink eggs in the photo.

Incubation Room
We worked really hard to get the new computers and wireless network set up for the staff. The hatchery site is comprised of multiple buildings that needed to be set up. Omar planned out the use of point to point wireless system to connect all of the buildings without digging a trench for the wire. Believe it or not, I ended up on the lift truck!

 Here is a photo of me and the maintenance man Nick up on the lift installing the wireless "Lightbeam" unit.
Me and Nick
This is the view from the top of the incubation warehouse. Yikes! (Yes, that's another bear on the grass)
View from above
We stayed in the bunkhouse in shared rooms with the staff and were served 3 meals per day all prepared by Chef Manny from the Phillipines.

Chef Manny making ciabatta rolls
Beef Bourguignon!
Beef Bourguignon
Meanwhile, lots of life and death action outside between the salmon and the predators. The salmon are thick and easy prey for the bear once they get into the holding pond. We saw 4 different bears during our stay. The staff know all of them individually.

Black Bear
The bears are really nothing to worry about. They are only going after the dead fish along the shore. On the other hand, the real predators are the Stellar's Sea Lions. These are massive creatures that can weigh up to 2500 pounds and be up to 11 feet long. I watched a group of them methodically work the salmon run for about an hour. I positioned myself on the dock and snapped about hundred photos as they surfaced along the outer edge of the salmon. Here are 2 of them with fish.

Stellar's Sea Lions with salmon
Here is a video of them patrolling the water. Look at all of the salmon in the foreground.


They would grab a fish and toss it into the air. I didn't realize how precise this action was until I caught a few with my camera. I realize that each Sea Lion would grab the fish by the head and bite it off as they tossed the fish in the air. This action would release the roe which you can see in the photos below. That's not blood, it's eggs.

Stellar's Sea Lion with salmon
The Sea Lion knows exactly where to bite the fish to get the eggs to pour out. Zoom in and look at all of the individual eggs being sprayed.

Stellar's Sea Lion ripping into a salmon
The gulls would swoop in and pick the eggs out of the water.

Gull clean up
I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous on that dock by myself with those monsters in the water nearby. Good thing I don't look like a salmon.

Back to work after a short break. We worked until 11 PM every day to get the work done but glad to spend a few minutes learning about the operation and watching the predator/prey dance unfold.