Thursday, August 26, 2010
Their size is comparable to a pigeon but they weigh twice as much. As with most birds in the Auk family, Tufted Puffin lay one egg and both parents are responsible for incubating the egg.
When it comes time to feed the young, Tufted Puffin excel at the task. The corner of the Puffin's bill is a fleshy membrane which allows the bird to open it's lower bill almost parallel to the top. This clamping action, combine with a series of backward pointing spines on their tongue and roof of mouth, allow the puffin to gather a great number of fish in one trip. They average 10 fish per trip but have been observed carrying up to 60!!
Tufted puffin were once hunted for food. Their tough hides were used to make parkas, the warm feathers worn toward the inside. Today they are a species of least concern with an estimated global population of 2,400,000 individuals.
At first glance the Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) looks much like it's Atlantic cousin (Fratercula arctica) with it's soft white face, candy corn beak and bright orange feet. Puffin are often referred to as the clowns of the sea because of their bright beaks and feet. A group of puffin is known as a "circus" or "improbability" of puffin.
On closer inspection the Horned Puffin is larger and lacks the Atlantic's distinctive band of blue on it's bill. It's named for the flashy black horn that extends upward from it's eye resembling a single eyelash. Rather than nest in burrows like the Atlantic Puffin, Horned Puffin prefer ready made rock crevices.
Height: 12.5 in
Weight: 13 oz
WingSpan: 21 in
Height: 15 in
Weight: 17 - 22.9 oz
Wing Span: 23 in
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
These auklets exhibit a behavior that is unique in birds. They rub each other with a citrus-like scent secreted in feathers on their back. This behavior is called alloanointing and while common in mammals, it has only been documents in Crested Auklets. It's thought that this behavior might help to ward off parasites.
The crested Auklet lays one egg and both parents help to incubate. They eat plankton and small crustaceans. A small pouch under the birds tongue helps them transport the plankton to their chicks.
Parakeet Auklets feed on jellyfish, krill and zooplankton. They breed on the islands in the Bering Sea but in winter they travel as far south as the California coast.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
The Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. The term “ harassment” means any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance and they take this law very seriously on St Paul. Two viewing blinds are set up for people to observe the seals at two different rookery sites and visitors must be accompanied by officials.
The Northern Fur Seal was first named "sea-bear" which is related to their scientific name, ursinus, meaning "bear-like". As with other seal species, pups are born with black pelts earning them the nickname 'black coats'. Males grow up to 385-605 pounds and females range 66-110 pounds. Their natural predators are orca, great white shark and occasionally pups will fall victim to hungry foxes.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)
Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Wandering Tattler (Heteroscelus incanus)
Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
A group of researchers were marooned on St Paul with us for a few days as they were thwarted in their efforts to get to St George Island. They eventually made it after days of trying and will capture (and then release) these far-traveling birds to take blood, cloacal and choanal swabs to study for presence of avian flu.
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) Caught somewhere between an albatross and a gull, this bird immediately captured my heart. They don't begin breeding until they are at least 8 years old and often not until they reach 10. Exceptionally long-lived, Fulmars banded in Scotland in 1951 as adults were still found to be breeding in 1990 setting their age around 50 years.
Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) Embarrassingly enough, these gulls are so large that after a week of working with tiny auklets, I mistook a gull on the beach for a large wading bird, thinking some heron had blown off course. From a distance I was certain it was the size of a black-crowned night heron. A peek through the binocs set me straight.
The Red-faced cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile) is another jewel in family with his bright red face patch and beautiful feathers. Their North American range is restricted to coastal Alaska and they are far less gregarious than many of their cousins and are often shy of human approach.
We arrived too late in the season to see these beauties in full breeding plumage. I did not see any birds with white neck feathers but the eye patches on many were still strikingly red. Photographing these birds added a bit of a challenge for me personally. I'm terrified of heights and these birds love to be on high, precarious cliffs. Perched on a small shelf jutting out from the cliff face, leaning out to try and capture the portrait above was a personal challenge that I faced with grim determination. I could feel the cliff shake and move with the force of every large wave which crashed and broke on the shore below. I couldn't help but wonder how much longer the rock I was perched on would remain stuck to the wall. Lucky for me, everything held in place and I was able to beat a hasty retreat once I achieved my image.
A group of cormorants is often called a "sunning", a "gulp" or a "swim" of cormorants.
A group of murres is called a "bazaar" or a "fragrance" of murres and I can attest that they certain are fragrant when they gather together.
Monday, August 16, 2010
Caribou meat is extremely lean and flavorful... I highly recommend giving it a try if you get a chance... just don't tell the kids you ate Rudolph or you might never be forgiven.
Their motto has to be "No Fear" as they would often buzz past at high speed before settling down to forage within arms reach. A true specialist in extreme living, this finch has the distinction of being the highest breeding bird in North America. When other bird have long ago sought cover or lower elevations to hide from winter storms, the Rosy finch can still be found navigating the blustery high winds and snow storms with apparent ease.
The Rock Sandpiper breeds throughout the northern tundra of the Arctic Pacific coast of Alaska, on the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands as well as Kamchatka, Russia and the Kuril Islands. In winter they migrate south to forage the rocky, ice free coasts.
They are monogamous birds with pair bonds that last several years and both parent takes responsibility for incubation. The Pribilof Island sub-species sports a black patch on his belly.
Friday, August 13, 2010
I had hoped to see one and was thrilled when I found one hunting along the cliff. He spotted me and ducked behind a rock, playing hide-n-seek before he ran away with an expression of guilt on his face. I counted myself lucky to have gotten a few close up frames. A few days later I was laughing at my naivety.
I was walking along a cliff when I heard Greg and Alan yelling at me. I looked up and they were frantically pointing behind me... I turned around and found I was being stalked. Not 10 feet behind me was the cutest chocolate colored male fox. Soon he was too close for me to even focus on... Oh how I wish I had, had a wide angle lens in my pocket. After practically sitting in my lap he made the rounds to a group of tour boat tourists before posing majestically on a rock for our entire photo group. He gave us almost a full our of his time and we might have stayed even longer if the fog hadn't rolled in and obscured our shots.
Life is pretty hard for these guys. The only rodents on the island are an endemic shrew and there are no polar bears to follow after in winter. They depend on the birds and many of them have come to depend on the people. Dens in town, often inside abandon cars or under sheds and dens near the dump... we even had a fox visit our hotel. I have to admit, if they didn't smell so badly (almost skunk-like)... I would have tried to take one home.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Kittiwake Stats (Whatbird and Cornell Bird Lab):
- Length Range: 41-43 cm (16-17 in)
- Weight: 422 g (14.9 oz)
- Wingspan: 94 cm (37 in)
- Size: Large (16 - 32 in)
- Color Primary: White, Gray
- Underparts: White
- Upperparts: Pale Gray
- Back Pattern: Solid
- Belly Pattern: Solid
- Breast Pattern: Solid
Their name is derived from their call, a shrill 'kittee-wa-aaake, kitte-wa-aaake' though my friend Kathy and I agree it sounds more like a plea not to be eaten: "Kitty Wait"!!
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Fog hugs the cliff tops, coating everything with its fine mist. The shoreline is dotted with bright red floats broken away from errant crab pots. Here and there the skeletons of ships lost remind captains to take care and remain vigilant against the weather and rough conditions of the Bering Sea. The high wind whips up the minerals in the surf to a thick froth breaking into pieces that float over rocks and up cliff faces. Wildflowers and lichen paint the landscape with vibrant purple, blue and gold. Distant growls and belches from the fur seal colony can be heard mixing with the plaintiff call of the kittiwakes. The wind burns your cheeks as you sit on the edge of the cliffs watching and waiting.
The town itself, while small, is alive with color and texture and a rich maritime history. Children play carefree in the streets as family cats look on from the safety of the front porch. The cats dare not wander far because the winters are harsh, they wouldn't be able to survive if they turned feral. Dogs are not allowed on the island for fear of spreading distemper to the fur seals so arctic fox take up residence under garages and inside cars and trucks stripped and abandon after a lifetime of service. The Russian Orthodox Church stands guard at the center of town and the small grocery store is a central hub for the latest gossip on the island.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The economy of St Paul is mainly based on two fishing seasons; snow crab and halibut. St Paul has garnered fame from the Discovery Channel show "Deadliest Catch" as a safe haven for the crab boats to offload crab and rest at the northern end of the C. opilio fishing grounds. On a good day the Trident Seafood plant processes up to 450,000 pounds of crab and employees up to 400 people.
Along with the small community of Aleut and the seasonal employees at Trident, St Paul is home to over 248 species of birds, northern fur seal, blue fox and reindeer. It's one of the few places left in the world where you can sit quietly for hours and watch the birds fly past without hearing any human influence.
1. Employees of Trident Seafood processing the days Halibut catch.
2. Pribilof Islands Arctic Fox, Alopex lagopus pribilofensis (aka Blue Fox)
3. Horned Puffin, Fratercula corniculata