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.

1 comment: