Thursday, August 26, 2010

Birds of St Paul: Tufted Puffin

Saving my favorite for last... The Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata). I'm not certain if he's my favorite because for the potential for bad hair days when the wind whips up the tufts or if it's because I've seen these guys so often off the coast of California. A quick trip under the Golden Gate Bridge, heading in the direction of the Farallon Islands will get you a nice view of these birds swimming just off Point Bonita.

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.

Birds of St Paul: Horned Puffin

Last but not least, the real super stars of Saint Paul were the puffin: flying footballs that hurl through the air beating their wings at incredible speeds (300-400 beats per minute). Impressive in the air but they excel at flying under water.

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.

Atlantic Puffin
Height: 12.5 in
Weight: 13 oz
WingSpan: 21 in

Horned Puffin
Height: 15 in
Weight: 17 - 22.9 oz
Wing Span: 23 in

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Birds of St Paul: Crested Auklet

The third auklet species on St Paul and the most flamboyantly attired is the Crested Auklet (Aethia cristatella). The Crested breed on the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands and prefer to spend their winters just off shore.

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.

Birds of St Paul: Parakeet Auklet

A step up in size from the Least Auklet is the Parakeet Auklet (Aethia psittacula). Pudgier and with a thicker, upturned bill, the Parakeet Auklet is no less entertaining than the Least Auklet. Unlike the Least Auklet, the Parakeet does not form large flocks either at sea or in breeding colonies.

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

Mammals of St Paul: Northern Fur Seal

The largest and perhaps the most intimidating mammal living on St. Paul (aside from humans) is the Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus). "Discovered" in the late 18th century, the Northern Fur Seal quickly became a prized catch for commercial hunters from the USA, Japan, Russia and the UK. With 300,000 hairs per square inch the seals pelts fetched a handsome price. For comparison, your average dog has approximately 60,000 hairs per square inch. Commercial hunting almost lead to the extinction of these seals by the late 19th century. Thanks to many treaties and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, these seals have rebounded to a population estimate of 1.1 million animals. This sounds like a lot until you consider the population was around 2.1 million in the 1950's. The population is now in decline even though the only legal hunting is done by native Aleut in a subsistence harvest. Between 1999-2003 the average annual harvest was 869 animals, all juvenile or sub-adult males. This number has dropped to 478 in 2007 and continues to remain low.

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

Birds of St Paul: Least Auklet

The Least Auklet (Aethia pusilla) had me laughing almost constantly. They are tiny, twitchy, pushy, very vocal and they love to eat! In fact, they consume up to 86% of their body weight a day and never get fat. They are monogamous even though they nest in colonies. The least auklet will return to it's nesting site, remembering the exact location even if it's still covered in snow. Luck for the egg, mom and dad wait for the snow to melt before they actually lay their egg. They don't use nesting materials, any crevice will suffice so it's important for both parents to survive to keep the chick warm between feedings.

Birds of St Paul: Misc

Before I get to the stars of St. Paul, I'll mention a few of the other species our group encountered. I was so seabird crazy that I couldn't keep myself still long enough to capture good images of many of these birds, preferring instead to sit on the cliff edge with the puffin and auks. I'm glad that Alan Murphy was there to give these little guys the proper attention they deserved. Links on these birds below go to Alan's website.

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.

Birds of St Paul: Red-faced Cormorant

Cormorants have always fascinated me with their jeweled tones; the bright blue throat pouch of the Brandt's, the gleaming green eye of the Double-crested and the green-violet iridescent shimmer of the Pelagic's feathers. The family contains thirty-six species with world wide distribution.

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.

Birds of St Paul: Thick-billed Murre

The Thick-billed murre (aka Brunnich's Guillemot) is quite the diver. They can reach depths of up to 600 feet. I really hope that their diving is better than their landing skills as I witness murres slamming head first into walls on more than one occasion. Murres seem to be accomplished cliff divers. I watched in horror as one plummeted head first off a cliff, flapping his wings wildly only to complete a dive any Olympic judge would give a 9.5. He surfaced and paddled a short way before running across the surface of the ocean, flapping until he gained the air again.

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

Mammals of St Paul: Reindeer

In 1911, twenty five Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) were introduced to St Paul Island in an attempt to breed an alternate food source. by 1921 the herd had swelled to 250 animals and by 1938 there were more than the island could sustain, over 2,000. Due to poor management, over grazing and harsh winters the herd was reduced to 8 individuals in the 1950. Lesson learned, 31 animals were brought back to St Paul from Nunivak Island. The herds are now managed by the USDA, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the local tribal authorities. A permit is required to hunt the reindeer and they are quite skittish as a result of the hunting. When the herd feels threatened they begin to circle just like pioneers in an old west wagon train.
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.

Birds of St Paul: Grey-crowned Rosy Finch

The bird which confounded me most was the Grey-crowned Rosy Finch. Even by the end of the trip I still couldn't get over the gigantic size of the bird. The Pribilof and Aleutian versions of this finch are nearly twice the size of their mainland cousins.

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.

Birds of St Paul: Rock Sandpiper

As with most things in life, the more you chase, the more things run away. The Rock Sandpipers (Calidris or Erolia ptilocnemis) were no exception. The more I tried to get close to them, the more they fled. The day I gave up and said, "Fine! Be that way - I didn't want your picture anyway!", is the day the bird leapt to the nearest rock and posed, gratiously turning from side to side, making eye contact with everyone present as if he had been trained at the Barbizon School for Models. Turns out the little guy knows how to own the runway!

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

Mammals of St Paul: Arctic Fox

The Pribilof Island Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus) is a cutie for certain. The fox on St. Paul are known as Blue Fox because they take on a blue-grey color coat in winter rather than pure white. Their coats were highly prized by Russian fur traders in the 1700's. At 3 feet long (most of that length is fluffy tail) and 7-15 pounds they are amazingly agile. They are able to scale the cliffs and steal eggs and chicks from unsuspecting murre and auklet.

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 fo
und 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

Birds of St Paul: Kittiwakes

St Paul is home to both species of Kittiwake (a medium sized white gull with pale grey back and wings); Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) and the Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa brevirostris).

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
The Black-legged kittiwake is the only gull that will actually dive and swim underwater to capture prey though mostly I saw them dive bombing puffin and murre in an attempt to relieve them of their fish.

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

St Paul Feeling

Enough of the cold sterile facts of the location... what is St Paul really like?

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

St Paul and the Bering Sea

St Paul is the largest of four volcanic islands which make up the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea (Otter, Walrus, St. George and St. Paul). The Pribilof Islands were discovered and named by the Russian Navigator, Gavriel Pribylov in 1786. In 1788 a group of Russian fur traders enslaved and relocated Aleuts from Siberia, Unalaska and Atka so they could hunt and process fur seals. The descendants of those Aleuts still live on St Paul and St George though the seal hunt today is only allowed for subsistence, not commercial means. In 1867 the islands were passed on to the United States along with mainland Alaska.

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

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Homeward Bound

I'm getting ready to head to the Anchorage airport to start the journey home but thought you might like to see the last airport I was at... it's also the hotel and power station. The fog was ever-present which made it more challenging to capture landscape images but acted as a wonderful soft box for all of the birds and foxes we saw. I'm afraid I've added quite a bit to my editing project but I loved every minute of it. Full report to come. :)