Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alaska Holiday - Day 6, St Paul Island, morning

Tuesday was mostly spent travelling, first by car from Bellingham to SeaTac airport, then a flight to Anchorage, followed by a connecting flight with Pen Air to St Paul Island, arriving Alaska time (9 hours behind London) around 5pm. We were lucky, the St George island leg of the St Paul flight was cancelled for the second of three straight days due to poor weather conditions.

St Paul Island, one of the Pribilof's, is essentially a rock in the middle of the Bering Sea, populated by Aleuts who were taken there as slaves by the Russians. Even after the Alaska purchase by the United States, the natives were very poorly treated, only gaining recognition of this and compensation from the US Government in, I believe, the 1980s.

We decided to visit as it is both somewhere completely different to anything we've experienced before and because the Islands play host to millions of nesting seabirds and roughly a million seals (though numbers of all species are in rapid and dramatic decline due primarily to overfishing). Before we travelled I had, last year, made arrangements to stay in the only hotel, the King Eider, and to go on a number of guided trips around the Island during our stay.

On arrival at St Paul I asked one of the staff where the hotel was located and how we might get to it. He told me that the building we were in, which was the airport (including check-in desk) was also the hotel and tried to find someone to help us.

Despite having confirmed our reservation with three separate people including the hotel staff and the staff at the travel company they'd forgotten we were coming. It also turns out that arriving on Tuesday May 18th, we were the first tourists of the year (a group had been scheduled to visit sooner but cancelled, probably because they hadn't sold enough places to justify the tour). We did get checked-in to a room and a few phone calls were made to try and establish what to do with us.

It quickly became apparent that the only restaurant on the Island, located in the hotel-cum-airport, had been sublet to a construction company working on extracting rock for another Island community's new harbor wall, so we had to feed ourselves.

A representative of the Island Corporation arrived and tried to sell us 'a package'. The result of this package would have been the same as I'd already arranged but would have cost us over twice as much as I'd already agreed. We had a long and heated debate about the fact that I had everything pre-arranged, to the extent of showing her the booking emails which I'd printed and brought with me, however she was adamant that we had to buy a package from her. I felt this was tantamount to extortion as we were pretty much stuck on a remote island with no transportation, no food and no access to facilities beyond a fridge, toaster and microwave.

Eventually, after a call to the hotel Manager who quoted the room rate we had already agreed, she relented, said we didn't need a package after all and offered to take us to the Island store to buy provisions, which we did, relying on microwaved Macaroni Cheese for our hot dinner.

The final arrangement was to confirm our being collected at 8am the following morning by the guides.

We settled in, slept, got up and made ready for our first experience of St Paul Island birding.

I should say that, in preparation, we'd been watching the weather forecast. The average temperature each day was 32 Farenheit (0 Celsius), with windchill taking that down to around 14F (minus 10C), so really rather cold. The prevailing weather condition was apparently snow mist. We had no idea what that might be.

The tour guides, Stefan and Claudia, collected us a little early and we set off in the tour 4x4 (which was running on tyres with metal exposed......); our first destination was the south-west of the Island. Before we even left the car park though the Grey-crowned Rosy-finch (the Island sub-species) was much in evidence:

We stopped first by a low rock wall which used to be, pre-harbour, the loading and unloading point, using float boats made of seal skin. Here a number of Least Auklets were sat on the wall or flying about:

Out on the water, a Red-faced Cormorant:

and some Harlequin Ducks:

Helen took this snap of Stefan, Claudia and I as we headed back to the 4x4 from this point:

It turns out the morning weather was unusually pleasant, reaching a balmy 33F, so we all looked quite warm. Our next stop was an exposed cliff face, spotting first Steller's Eider, two flying past, then a big raft of some 300 or so King Eider:

The wind was really howling over the cliffs off the sea making it a very uncomfortable spot. No sign of the previous day's Fox Sparrow but the 'beachmaster' seals were taking up residence ahead of the coming breeding season:

We finished off on the point and headed back in land, spotting an Arctic Fox:

Being the end of a hard winter and with the temperature mostly around freezing, the frozen carcasses of foxes that didn't make it through the winter far outnumbered the number of lives foxes we spotted.

One of the most common birds on the Island, along with the Rosy-Finches, are Lapland Longspurs:

We stopped off at some cliffs and approached them using the path. To one side a Winter Wren, again of the Island sub-species (and hopefully soon to be recognised as a distinct species) sang:

On the cliffs, two species of Murres, the Common Murre, which we call the Common Guillemot and the Long-billed Murre, distinguished by the white line on the bill and being black and white as opposed to brown and white:

Parakeet Auklets:

Crested Auklets:

Helen's new favourite bird because it looks so comical:

Parakeet Auklets and Least Auklets:

A pair of Least Auklets (apparently the most common bird in the Bering Sea):

and, for me, the star of this particular show, the Tufted Puffin:

Offshore, as well as large numbers of the birds seen on the cliffs, a small group of Glaucous Gulls flew by:

As did the odd Black-legged Kittiwake:

As the weather deteriorated, low cloud, fog and mist rolled in to reduce visibility, and after a stop at the tour company's offices for a much-needed hot drink and a quick tour around the island museum, we headed back inland, towards the crab pots, stopping to photograph this Long-tailed Duck drake:

At the crab pots as the snow mist started (we now know what this is - think snow, with the snowflakes melted and re-frozen to form minute ice pellets, blowing horizontally into your face and eyes and with a consistent temperature around -10 Celsius). We did, however, locate two migrants blown off course, both male Varied Thrushes:

Also in and around the crab pots, a pair of Hoary Redpolls:

Every bird seen was a new species. As well as those photographed and described we added a number of others to both the holiday list and the life list. Fantastic and bloody freezing! Stefan and Claudia dropped us back at the hotel for lunch and for Helen to add about another three layers before we went out again after lunch.

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