Western Alaska Trip Report: Spring 2001
Saint Paul IslandGambellNome
May 15 to June 5, 2001
by Phil Davis
Photographs by Phil and Barbara Davis
Dedication: This report is dedicated to the memory of Tim Schantz, 36, of Anchorage, Alaska. Tim died of a massive coronary at the Nome airport on May 27, 2001. My wife, Barbara, and I considered Tim to be a friend. We spent the entire month of September 2000 with him on Attu where he was a staff member and birding leader. Tim was one of the strongest, hardest working, friendliest, and most knowledgeable birders we ever met. A native of Iowa, but a resident of Anchorage for the past six years, he did an Alaska "Big Year" in 2000, ending with an impressive 275 species for the state. Tim was all about birds. He was smart and thoroughly knowledgeable of bird identifications and habitats. He was detailed, quick, and an accurate field observer. Most importantly, however, he was a very genuine person. He was down to earth and would talk to anyone, sharing everything he knew about birds and where to find any species in Alaska. Barbara and I were very glad that we could spend our Pribilofs week with Tim again as one of our guides. We had planned to link up again with him in Gambell when another group he was to lead was to overlap with our group for a few days. We had also already made plans to travel with him next summer on an excursion to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). After returning from Saint Paul Island, Tim led a two-day owling trip in the Anchorage area and then took his group to Nome on Sunday, May 27 to make the airline connection to Gambell. While on a weather hold, waiting for Gambell to clear, Tim suffered a massive heart attack in the Nome airport. He had plans to guide tours in ANWR for most of the summer and then to bird southern and eastern Alaska where some of the "good lower 48" birds are found. Later in the summer, he was to have served as the staff ornithologist on the birding/naturalist ship tour that will depart from Nome and "island hop" across the Bering Sea to the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula and then on to the Kurile Islands in Japan. After the cruise, he and others planned to explore the Kuriles and he was very excited about finding some Japanese islands endemics. The birding community, and his friends, will greatly miss Tim.
Scope: This report focuses on the locations, logistics, weather, and species found during our recent trip to western Alaska.
|Map of Alaska and Bering Sea area with trip destinations highlighted (and Attu, for reference). Map courtesy of Microsoft Encarta.
Trip Background: This was our third trip to Alaska; the first two were to Attu, two weeks in the Spring of 1998 and then for the entire month of September 2000. One thing nice about having done Attu first is that any accommodations, no matter the condition, would be nothing but an improvement!
Target List: Our target species list focused on seabirds and western Alaska specialties. Specifically, my "hit" list included twelve species:
St. Paul (Pribilofs):
May 16, Wednesday, Washington, DC to Anchorage (ANC): We arrived in Anchorage just after midnight on the morning of Wednesday, May 16th. We always like to allow extra time in Anchorage when traveling to western Alaska to accommodate lost luggage, missed connections, weather delays, etc. We also always seem to forget some item of clothes or gear; the very large REI store in Anchorage always gets some business from us.
Thursday night, we met our group for dinner and Friday morning birded Westchester Lagoon and the Campbell Track before our departure to Saint Paul. At the Campbell Track, we were rewarded with the sight of a Northern Goshawk on the nest and an "up close and personal" (30 foot) view of a "city moose." ("City" moose are generally tame, unlike their country cousins!)
SAINT PAUL ISLAND
Air Travel: May 18, Friday, Anchorage to St. Paul (SNP): This year was the first spring birding season since Reeve Aleutian Airlines declared Chapter 11; the current carrier that now provides all transportation to the Pribilof Islands is Peninsula Air (Pen Air). Our airplane was a Metro SA-227, a small nineteen-passenger plane. Pen Air also operates larger SAAB 340s, one of which was in Tennessee being outfitted for over water flights to the "Pribs" with a life raft and other FAA-required safety equipment. When entered into service, this larger plane will "feature" an on-board restroom (!!!) and a flight attendant, amenities not available on the smaller Beechcraft. The aircraft load and passenger scheduling dictates any stops en route. After refueling in the town of King Salmon, at the base of the Alaskan Peninsula, our flight proceeded directly to Saint Paul. Without refueling, the trip would have been about three hours … so, with the smaller aircraft you should avoid drinking coffee in the morning! Saint Paul is located about 240 miles north of the Aleutians and about 750 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Island Background: The Pribilofs include five islands, however only two are inhabitedSaint Paul and Saint George. The islands were basically uninhabited until the Russian-sponsored visit by the Dane St. Vitas Bering and the subsequent Russian domination of the Aleutians in the 1740’s. Aleutian natives were essentially enslaved and relocated to the Pribilofs to provide labor for the harvest of the Northern Fur Seals that breed on the islands. Approximately 75% of the world’s population of this species calves and breeds here from May through August. About one millions seals currently breed on the islands, however, the population, ravaged by hunting, was once dwindled to only several hundred thousand. Saint Paul village is the largest Aleut community in the world, with a 2000 population of 532. Saint Paul Island is 14 miles long with 45 miles of coastline. Annually, during May-August, about 600 visitors take in Saint Paul with about half of being "hard core" "birders". The remainder are primarily interested in either seeing the Fur Seals, the seabird colonies, or to just "experience" the Pribilofs. Saint George has higher cliffs than Saint Paul with more nesting birds, but it has less attractive vagrant habitat, such as ponds and lakes. There is a hotel in Saint George, but no restaurant, only a general store.
|Map of Saint Paul Island. Courtesy of Microsoft Encarta
Birding Saint Paul: The only way to bird the island of Saint Paul is under the auspices of the native corporation, Tanadgusix (TDX) Corporation, either directly or via a third-party tour group. The TDX tour guides met us upon our arrival. The senior guide is Sean Smith of Anchorage. Eric Hynes of Virginia and Russ Namitz of Oregon ably assist him. Sean has guided in the Pribs for nine years. Eric is in his second year, and Russ is in his first tour. The quality and services of these guides is excellent. Each is an excellent birder and full of energy. They provide interesting "factoids" about the island and are knowledgeable of the local plants. There are about 8-10 primary birding areas on Saint Paul and all spots are covered as frequently as possible to check for any arriving vagrants. "Pond stomping" is the key to flushing birds from the vegetation at the edge of the ponds. Waterproof boots are a necessity. During the nesting season, seabirds are always present. The birding modus operendi is: breakfast at 7 am and birding from 8:30 to noon, returning in time for lunch. Back out again at 1:30 and birding until dinner at 5 pm. After dinner, birding is from 7:30 pm until about 10-11 pm (depending on the birds and weather). The TDX tour buses are magnificent. They are 20-passenger mini-buses with large straight windows, overhead storage, contoured padded seats with storage pocket on the back of the seat in front. The larger bus is wheelchair accessible and, oh yes, did I mention that there is an on-board bathroom? It’s great to get on a bus after pond stomping and be handed a Kleenex by the driver! (Nothing like this on Attu!)
Weather/Daylight: The weather was very cold when we arrived. On our first day snow greeted us and the winds blew briskly. At the same latitude as Juneau, the June ocean-moderated temperatures average about 47 (F) for the high and 43 for the low, although our mid-May temperatures were much colder. The sky is generally cloudy. The wind averages 18 mph throughout the year. There are about 19 hours of daylight in late May.
|Saint Paul Island "birdwatching" bus. Photo © 2001 by Barbara Davis.
Accommodations: The King Eider Hotel is more than adequate. Most of the rooms are on the second floor where there are separate male and female hall bathrooms and showers. A nice lobby area and reading room provide plenty of room to relax. The hotel has a gift shop with nice souvenirs, including T-shirts (yesss!). Credit cards are accepted. The Hotel is immediately adjacent to the town tavern (beer and wine only). Our room was directly next to the tavern’s front door and, as we had been warned before our trip, when the tavern closes at midnight on Friday, there is often much racket. On our Friday night, there was indeed a loud "colorful" conversation. Fortunately, the tavern is closed on Saturday and Sunday.
Wildlife: Arctic foxes behave like the local dogs in most other towns. They roam freely and are more common in the town than outside. You see them foraging, trying to sneak into everything from garbage bins to automobiles. At night, they often howl outside your window. GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCHES substitute for most towns’ starlings. They nest under the eves of the buildings and constantly chase each other around. Inland, from the Lakehill FAA radar site, we were treated to a great view of a local reindeer herd, approximately 350 adults and young
|Saint Paul’s King Eider Hotel and Russian Orthodox Church. Photo © 2001 by Barbara Davis.
Food: Meals are taken in the cafeteria on the third floor of the Trident Seafood Processing Plant, a few blocks from the hotel. The cafeteria did not open until two days after we arrived, so we made due by taking dinner one night at the local "Burger Palace" and another by microwaving food we purchased at the general store. At the Burger Palace, you can expect to pay $12-13 for the largest burger (a "double deluxe" bacon cheeseburger with fries). There is an espresso shop near the hotel, but it currently does not serve food except for sweets. Food at the Trident Plant gets mixed reviews. Some meals were good, but others were not so great. For example, the beef stew was great, but the yellow-fin tuna was dried out. The salad and fruit bar was fresh and very good. Some of our party, unfortunately, had a problem with the smell of crabs greeting them every meal, especially breakfast, as they entered the processing plant. As one of my uncles once said, "I could sit on a dead horse and eat dinner". The general store, close to the hotel, sells food and general supplies, but is not open on Sunday. The hotel offers a refrigerator and microwave, so you can also store and eat "comfort food", as you wish..
Saint Paul Birding Chronology:
May 18, Friday, Saint Paul: Departing the airport, our first birding stop was the nearby "Weather Bureau Lake" (next to the NOAA/National Weather Service buildings). Immediately, we were rewarded with our first target bird. Mixed in with the hundreds of bathing BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES were several RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, notable by their smaller size and darker mantles. Sometimes, their red legs were also clearly visible. Other species on the lake included the smithsonianus form of the Herring Gull (not so common on Saint Paulthe vegae form predominates). At Tonki Point, we found a WOOD SANDPIPER, four BAR-TAILED GODWIT, PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS, and a EURASIAN WIGEON. At Telegraph Hill, on the drive back to the hotel, we sighted a small flock of the Aleutian form of the Canada Goose, including a single GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE. At the Village Cove, next to town, a female STELLER’S EIDER was keeping company with several KING EIDERS.
May 19, Saturday, Saint Paul: At the Reef Rookery, we got "up close and personal" views of seabirds beginning to claim nesting sites on the cliffs. Species included PARAKEET AUKLET, CRESTED AUKLET, LEAST AUKLET, TUFTED PUFFIN, and THICK-BILLED MURRE (Click here to see a page of Phil's sumptuous photos of Pacific auklets, murres and puffins). We found an uncommon Snow Goose at Rock Lake. At Big Lake, we found the first of many Least Sandpipers, generally thought to be uncommon in western Alaska. Back at the Weather Bureau Lake, was an immature Mew Gullthis one appeared to be the US west coast form, brachyrhynchus, rather than the more likely kamtschatschensis form. Our first NORTHERN WHEATEAR was found at the Antone Causeway. At the Antone cliffs, we had very close looks at thousands of nesting Least Auklets. Walking over the rocks, we could hear birds, burrowed down in the rocks, far below our feet. At the Ridge Wall cliffs, we added good looks of nesting NORTHERN FULMARS and more of the same seabirds with the addition of nesting RED-FACED CORMORANTS and much better looks at nesting Red-legged Kittiwakes. PELAGIC CORMORANTS were also present. The first of several WANDERING TATTLERS was seen at Southwest Point. More Bar-tailed Godwits (four) were seen at Salt Lagoon, along with a Red-necked Grebe. While King Eiders were plentiful, adult-plumaged drakes were present in fewer numbers and always turned our heads. Black, and White-winged Scoters were both seen at Marunich on the north side of the island. Normally unproductive Big Lake (it’s very shallow) hosted a Tundra Swan. Our first of several YELLOW WAGTAILS was seen at Antone Slough. On Saint Paul, these birds hardly ever seem to land; you mostly see then just flying by.
Saint Paul Birding Chronology continued - click here
Click here to see a page of Phil's sumptuous photos of Pacific auklets, murres and puffins