Pelagic Seabirds and other Wildlife of St. Paul Island, Alaska

This is my first attempt at a blog and I hope you will find it of interest. I just returned from St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands of Alaska where millions of pelagic seabirds and hundreds of thousands of Northern Fur Seals come ashore to have their chicks and pups. Through this blog, I hope you will find this place and its inhabitants, as interesting as I did. To see the full-sized images, just click once on the image.

St.-Paul-1-of-1Looking from the SW corner near the “Reef” back toward the harbor and town.

St. Paul Island

St. Paul Island is part of a five-island archipelago known as the Pribilof Islands. They are located 750 air miles from Anchorage and about 300 miles from the mainland of Alaska. Most of people of St. Paul Island, the largest of the five islands, live in the city of St. Paul where there are nearly 500 inhabitants – about 86% of which are native Aleuts. These islands were discovered in 1786 by Russian fur traders and about two years later, the Russian American Company enslaved Aleuts from Siberia and their island homes in the Aleutians Islands to hunt and process Northern Fur Seals. Most of the native Aleuts of the the Pribilof Islands are descendants of these early inhabitants.

pribilof-islands1.jpg

Of the 5-islands, St. Paul and St. George are the largest.

After flying several hours on a small Saab Turbojet from Anchorage, Alaska our small group of six photographers, along with our “megapounds” of equipment and winter clothing landed on a small airstrip along the southern coast of this 43 square mile island. The island is composed of a series of old cinder cones and is mostly low lying, except for the 675′ remains of one of the volcanic cones. It was just the beginning of St. Paul’s very short summer and the low tundra grass and a few species of wildflowers that had recently been buried under feet of snow had just emerged. A few blades of grass were taking advantage of the near 16 hours of daylight to begin their summer growth although photons were few and far between as much of the time the island was shrouded in a thick blanket of Bering Sea fog.

Reclaiming our bags, we walked through the hanger of the little airport and went through one door to arrive at our hotel – the King Eider Hotel. This hotel is a dormitory style place with bathrooms down a long hall. It was quiet, clean and well managed and the staff, local native Aleuts were wonderfully helpful and welcoming. The only place to eat on the island was the Trident Fish Cannery cafeteria which was located about 6 miles from our hotel and the food was varied and surprisingly good. This cannery employs about 350 Filipino workers for several months while the cannery is processing Snow Crab. The seasonal workers had just departed from the cannery and it was awaiting the July opening of a smaller line to process local Halibut. Accordingly, we had the cannery to ourselves and a few British film crew photographers and several birders who were there in search of the Sea Eagle that had flown in from Siberia (presumably) during the previous week.

The Birds and other Wildlife of St. Paul Island

There have been over 250 species of birds reported from St. Paul Island – listed in the very helpful “Checklist of Birds of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, available through TDX (www.alaskabirding.com). Most of these birds are only occasional residents, passing through during migration, being blown off course and taking refuge on the island, or braving the elements and raising their chicks along the cliffs and in the verdant summer tundra grass and wildflowers. We spent our time primarily photographing the pelagic alcids. These birds spend most of the year in the northern oceans and come ashore only during the brief summer months to find their mates (most are monogamous and must refind their breeding partner each summer). Their breeding plumages are quite spectacular in comparison to the understated elegance of their winter feathers. I will include below some of the recent photographs of these birds as well as the few breeding songbirds that we were able to photograph and some photographs of the Northern Fur Seals and the native “Blue Fox” – a race of the Arctic Fox that has evolved in these islands. For additional photographs, please see my website (www.lyndagoffphotography.com — Recent and Thematic Galleries) to see a full set of photographs from this trip (probably uploaded by middle August 2012). Thanks for spending some time here and with these photographs.

Blue-Fox-1-of-1

St. Paul Blue Fox on rocks along Zapadni Jetty

This little St. Paul Blue Fox stayed with the me throughout an afternoon I spent photographing Least Auklets along the Zapadni Jetty. These foxes are a race of the Bering Island Arctic Fox – Vulpes lagopus beringensis. Their coat ranges in color from a light to chocolate brown to a grayish blue color. They are relatively numerous on St. Paul Island and feed primarily along the sea edge and cliffs on sea urchins, birds and bird eggs

NorthernFurSeal-1-of-1

Two makes disputing a spot on the rocky beach “haul-out”

These Northern Fur Seals were contesting space along one of the many haul-out beaches and rocky areas of St. Paul Island. At this time, the beaches were littered with males of all ages and sizes – fighting with each other in practice or for real. Many of the males had large wounds from the fighting. The males fast during the breeding season which probably adds to their bad humor. The most successful male is the largest and toughest guy on the beach. He may mate with as many as 50 females shortly after the females give birth (late June to early July). Mated females, pups and males return to the sea in November foraging south, following the food.

For those of you interested, I have indicted on the map below (double-click it to be able to see it), the sites at which I photographed some of the birds depicted below.

BirdlocationsSTPAUL-10

Nearly all the seabirds were photographed along steep vertical cliffs that ranged from 100-300 feet. Some of these cliffs were nearly “wall-to-wall” in birds – predominantly the Thick-billed Murre.

Photocliffs-1-of-1

Vertical cliffs at the “Ridge”

Thick-billedMurre-1-of-11

Thick-billed Murre on cliffs at “Ridge” rocks

Thick-billed Murres (above) are one of the most numerous pelagic birds in the northern hemisphere. They nest as here in dense colonies on precipitous cliffs and colonies with more than 1 million birds have been observed. They are the deepest of the Arctic diving birds diving more than 100 meters up to 200 meters and remaining submerged for up to 3 minutes. They feed on pelagic marine invertebrates and fish. Their usually single egg and chick is guarded constantly in their open nest by one of the two adults. When the chicks leave the nest they are very immature (about one-quarter the size of adults) and flutter to the sea surface using their wing coverts as ‘miniwings” as their primaries and secondary wing feathers have not yet matured. The female disperses and the male remains with the chick feeding it until it is able to feed itself (Reference – #497, Gaston and Hipfner, Birds of North America).

Crested-Auklet-1-of-1

Breeding Pair – “checking out each other’s crest”

After more than a week with the Birds of St. Paul Island, my favorite became the Crested Auklet (above). These are amazingly cute birds and incredibly charismatic. These two were photographed while they were doing part of the elaborate courtship display on some vertical rock cliffs. These auklets are members of the Alcids – related to the penguins of the southern hemisphere. The Crested Auklet breeds in colonies along cliffs of islands in the Aleutians and Pribilof Islands. The crest is conspicuous all year but the coloration of the bill becomes strikingly conspicuous during mating time. They are monogamous and are attracted to mates with the longest crests. Crested Auklets have a distinctive citrus odor to the plumage – particularly during mating season. A pair will lay one egg in cold rock crevices and the chick fledges about 33 days after hatching. These birds feed primarily on euphausids (krill etc.) and live during winter months – at sea, relatively close to their summer breeding areas. (Reference: #070 Jones, I.L., Birds of North America).

LeastAuklet-1-of-1

Breeding pair – courtship behavior

Another wonderful Auklet is the Least Auklet (above). This is a tiny little bird and one of the most abundant of North American Seabirds and is highly gregarious. Surveys estimate that more than 9 million birds occur in the Bering Sea. They spend most of the year dive-feeding at sea on copepods and other zooplankton. During the two months of summer they nest in rock crevices along the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. While in breeding plumage as seen in these birds above, their bill is colorful, they have conspicuous white facial plumes and a horny bill-knob ornament that is larger in the male than the female. (Reference: #069, Jone, I.L., Birds of North America).

ParakeetAukletNEWNEW

Parakeet Auklet on rock at the “Reef” cliffs

We saw and photographed several breeding pairs of the beautiful Parakeet Auklet. This auklet has the widest range of the Alaska auklets found throughout the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. It is less gregarious than the Crested Auklet and like other auklets, it is socially monogamous. It’s unusually shaped bill – reminiscent of a parakeet’s bill, is specialized for pelagic foraging on gelatinous zooplankton such as jellyfish and ctenophores. (Reference #574, Jones, I.L., et al., Birds of North America).

Tufted-Puffins-1-of-1

“You think you’re landing where?” Breeding pair on vertical cliff

The Tufted Puffin has been described as the “Seabird Tough-Guy”. The species distribution ranges from the hot cactus covered sea cliffs of southern California to the frozen coastal arctic cliffs of Alaska. They are highly pelagic, flying thousands of miles and spending most of it’s life at sea in pursuit of food (primarily euphausids, squid and small fish). Juveniles will go to sea for several years before returning to their colony to breed. (Reference #708, Piatt, J.F. and Kitaysky, K. Birds of North America).

HornedPuffin-1-of-1

On rocks at “Reef”

The Horned Puffin (above) is one of the poorly studied members of the Auk group, probably because their breeding colonies are in isolated, difficult to access places. They consume squid and other pelagic invertebrates and bring fish back to feed their chick(s). Like the Tufted Puffin, juveniles do not return to land for several years but migrate to the south oceanic waters of the central North Pacific in search of food. (Reference #603, Piatt J. F. and Kitaysky, K. Birds of North America).

Black-leggedKittiwakeNEWEST1

Black=legged Kittiwake breeding pair, at the “Reef” cliffs

Black-legged Kittiwakes (above) are beautiful small gulls that are common throughout the circumpolar regions of the northern hemisphere. Like other pelagic seabirds, these birds remain at sea most of the year where they feed day and occasionally at night on small fish and microzooplankton. They come ashore in the breeding season of summer, building their nests on shear vertical cliffs. They may nest in large colonies or individually or in small clusters. During this visit in June, many Kittiwakes were observed at St. Paul Island. Most were just starting nest-building though a few nests were observed with mating birds and incubating eggs. Many birds were observed flying with nesting materials that included grasses, mosses and seaweeds. A great deal of ecological research has been done on this species as they appear to be a very informative biological indicator of ecological pertubations. (Reference: #092 Bair, P.H.).

RockSandpiper-1-of-1

Rock Sandpiper in grassland Tundra of the NE Point

Rock Sandpipers (above) were numerous at this time on St. Paul Island and several nesting pair were observed, one incubating several oval-shaped eggs. This is a small stocky Sandpiper that is truly a bird of the Bering Sea. In this region 4 subspecies are recognized and they winter further north than any other North American shorebird. During breeding season each of the 4 subspecies can be recognized by their distinctive and different plumage but all have the same winter plumage. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100,000 Rock Sandpipers. They feed in the soft substrates of the intertidal, primarily on clams and snails and other invertebrates. They nest in the low elevation tundra, laying usually 4 eggs in grass-lined “scrapes” in the ground. One egg is laid each day and after the last is laid, both the female and male take turns incubating for 23 days. The chicks leave the nest 12 days after hatching.

LaplandLongspur-1-of-1

Lapland Longspur in rocks at NE Point

The Lapland Longspur (above) is one of the most abundant birds wintering in North America. They breed across vast areas of the Arctic and winter along the west coast of North America, throughout the Great Lakes region and through the Great Plains. Flocks with more than 4 million birds have been observed, and such flocks may have devastating effects on grain fields. (Reference: #656 Hussell, D. & Montgomerie, Birds of North America). On St. Paul Island many nesting pairs were establishing territory by singing and by spectacular aerial displays between competing males. In these displays, the male rises near vertically and glides back to its territory singing melodiously as it flutters to the ground.

SnowBunting-1-of-1

Snow Bunting on rocks in NE Point

Snow Buntings (above) are beautiful buntings that appear to be in some trouble ecologically. During the last major bird census, they were one of 20 North American species that had a recorded decrease of 50% or more. This bunting overwinters in northern climes and returns in April to the far north Arctic. The males return first when temperatures may be 30 degrees below zero and their food source is covered with snow. The females return 4-6 weeks later to begin breeding. It is postulated that competition for nest sites is intense in the Arctic regions in which they breed. Males compete fiercely for the few rock cavities that are deep enough to afford protection for the sitting adult and the chicks. (Reference: #198, Bruce Lyon and R. Montgomerie, Birds of North America).

GraycappedRoseyFinchNEWNEW

Gray-capped Rosy Finch at NE Point

Gray-capped Rosy Finches were seen often in June on St. Paul Island, in pairs and in small flocks of 5-10 birds. They are a medium-sized Finch but those in the Pribilofs and Aleutian Islands are the largest within the species. These birds feed on insects and seeds and are highly environment-specific. In the summer breeding months, they are found only on rocky islands and barren areas of mountains in Alaska, British Columbia and into the mountainous regions of the Pacific NW and the northern Sierra. In mountainous regions they prefer snowfields and rocky scree and breed at higher altitude than any other North American bird. In the winter, they form large flocks of more than 1000 birds and descend onto the western plains. They may forage in mixed flocks with Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks. Pairs are monogamous and build cup-shaped nests on cliffs or on the ground. Both partners collect nest-building materials but only the female builds the nest. She lays 3-5 eggs and incubates them for 2 weeks. Both feed the young which leave the nest 2-3 weeks after hatching. During the breeding season the male aggressively defends the pair’s breeding territory, not just the nest. (Reference: Wikipedia and #559, MacDougall-Shakleton, S.A. et al., Birds of North America)

LaplandReindeer-1-of-1

Lapland Reindeer of St. Paul Island

In 1911 twenty-five Lapland Reindeer from Russian domesticated stock were brought to the island to provide a sustainable food source for the native Aleuts. This population reached a high of 2046 in 1938 but since, hunting decreased the population to 8 individuals. Today, reindeer hunting is highly regulated but nevertheless, the number of Reindeer in this herd has been dwindling significantly. A recent article in the Alaska Dispatch (July 2, 2012) reported a pre-winter herd count of nearly 500 individuals was now 125. This is the likely consequence of the severe winter that St. Paul and much of the rest of SW Alaska experience this past year.

I hope you have enjoyed these images and the little bit that I have learned of these species. Please visit my website at http://www.lyndagoffphotography.com and sign in the guest book. I will not distribute your email information but will use this only to notify you if you so wish, when new galleries and blog entries are posted. Thanks for spending your time with me.
– Lynda Goff

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s