Special features

Big leap: Birding the Pribilofs

Puffins, Asian rarities, and millions of seabirds make the hop to Alaska’s alluring Pribilof Islands worthwhile
By Emily Drew | Published: 4/1/2006

Big-LeapwBirders who travel 300 miles from mainland Alaska to St. Paul and St. George Islands, together known as the Pribilofs, can view 75 percent of the world’s Red-legged Kittiwakes amid dense colonies of almost three million other seabirds. Plus, the Pribilofs’ wetlands and grassy hills are magnets for Alaskan and Siberian migrants. More than 240 bird species have been seen here.

Allow me to take you on a tour of St. Paul, the more easily visited of the two islands. I spent a recent summer working there as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Each summer, the agency sends teams of biologists to the Pribilofs to survey nest-success rates for seabirds.

Kittiwake lane

I am sitting on a grassy peninsula called Ridge Wall. I’m 10 feet from the cliff edge, and I’m clutching my binoculars to avoid being jostled by gusts of wind. I can see a dozen Red-legged Kittiwakes nesting along a cliff that also houses hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes. Some birds incubate their eggs. Others work to complete their nests: They pack down the nest-cup’s mud by doing a little dance, rocking from foot to foot.

Red-legged Kittiwake is one of our main species of concern. The gull winters over deep Arctic waters and nests on only four isolated island groups in the Bering Sea. The Pribilofs are its stronghold.

But kittiwakes aren’t the only birds you’ll see from the Ridge Wall lookout. Thick-billed and Common Murres crowd onto ledges. Red-faced Cormorants fly by, trailing long strings of dried grass for their messy nests. Horned and Tufted Puffins stand guard in front of their nesting burrows, balancing on orange, webbed feet.

In summer, shades of orange, yellow, and red paint the puffins’ bills. The Horned Puffin also grows a fleshy horn over its eye. In combination with its white face and jet-black forehead, it looks remarkably like a clown wearing face powder and eyeliner.

Also clownish are the dusty-black Tufted Puffins. When they are breeding, two plumes of pale yellow feathers flow behind their white face and red-lined eyes. The plumes flutter around in the wind as the puffins go about their daily business: standing watch, walking to and fro, rubbing bills with their mates. Occasionally, they hover in the strong winds, right over your head, as if they want to get a better look at the strange creature watching them through binoculars.

On a wide ledge below a Tufted Puffin, a Northern Fulmar sits quietly on its single egg. It glances up and opens its beak wide in a threat display. A native arctic fox peers down at it from a tunnel entrance.

The foxes, bluish gray in summer, are the seabirds’ main predators and egg thieves. They patrol the cliff edges and venture into the seabird colonies along any non-vertical path they can find. This one realizes it can’t reach the fulmar without tumbling into the ocean below, so it carefully works its way back to the cliff-top.

A hotspot between continents

The Pribilofs are located in the Bering Sea 300 miles from mainland Alaska. Most birders visit St. Paul rather than St. George because fog frequently cuts off flights to St. George. A handful of roads connect the village of St. Paul with the island’s best birding sites.

Flying to St. Paul Island

You can travel to St. Paul on your own or with an organized birding tour. A flight on PenAir (800-448-4226), the only airline that flies to the Pribilofs, costs $870 from Anchorage.

Joining a tour

The advantage to joining a tour is that the guides know every seabird-viewing spot and vagrant hideout on the island. Tour companies often bundle a visit to St. Paul with other birding destinations in Alaska. St. Paul Island Tours (877-424-5637) offers three- to eight-day trips. Visiting birders stay at the King Eider Hotel (907-546-2477).

When to visit

May to August, depending on what birds you want to see. Spring migration (which peaks in late May and early June) is your best chance to see an Asian vagrant. The hills are not yet green and the islands’ famous fur seals have not quite arrived, but the birding can be excellent. Summer is a great time to watch the resident seabirds and to enjoy the islands’ wildflowers. By August, the auklet species will have departed, but you can see the fall migration, murre and kittiwake chicks, and thousands of young fur seals.

Weather

Don’t underestimate the islands’ cold weather. The highest temperature ever recorded was 64 degrees F. Summer winds average 18 mph.

What to bring

Bring sturdy waterproof boots for the rugged terrain and waterproof rain gear. Waterproof optics are also essential.

Visiting St. George Island

The island hosts one of the largest seabird rookeries in the Northern Hemisphere, including most of the Pribilofs’ Red-legged Kittiwakes. If you are lucky enough to have a flexible schedule to accommodate uncertain flight times, a true natural wonder awaits you. You can arrange a flight and a reservation at the island’s 10-room St. George Hotel (907-859-2255). Trails lead to the seabird rookeries.

Bad weather brings good news

It’s hard not to laugh out loud when a fierce updraft pops a Black-legged Kittiwake right out of its nest. The bird quickly returns, snuggles in tighter over its eggs, then squeezes its eyes shut against a sudden squall.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Pribilof weather can be downright nasty. Birders wear a uniform of windproof gloves, waterproof rain gear, wool sweaters, and the knee-high rubber boots locals call “Alaskan sneakers.” A typical summer day averages 43 degrees F, sometimes combined with sideways rain. Fog drapes the hills. Even on sunny days, wind is a constant companion — but it can also be a birder’s best friend.

Every gust can blow a vagrant onto the island. Winds from the east bring unusual visitors from mainland Alaska: Arctic Warbler, Northern Wheatear, and migrating sandpipers. And when the winds flow over from Russia, rare Asian migrants sometimes make a much-needed rest stop on the island.

One typical stormy morning, I huddled over my hot tea while rain clattered at the windows and the winds made the roof hum. As I prepared myself for a cold, wet day of fieldwork, my supervisor ran inside and yelled, “Siberian Rubythroat!”

Everyone in the house sprang into motion, spilling coffee on waterproof binoculars, throwing coats on over pajamas, stuffing slippered feet into rubber boots. In my haste, I forget to put on gloves. Moments later, we were at the crab pots, a hotspot located in the village of St. Paul. In the summer, fishermen stack hundreds of crab-catching cages there, providing forest-like shelter in a treeless, shrub-less land.

Within a minute, vans arrived. Guides and touring birders rushed out. Somewhere in the crab-pot maze, they insisted, a rubythroat, an Asian thrush, had been singing that very morning. I strained my ears against the wind’s roar and the lashing of grasses against my rain pants. My hands were freezing. We circled the crab pots but saw only our resident songbirds: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, Lapland Longspurs, and Winter Wrens. (Our Winter Wrens are larger and paler than those in the lower 48 states. Their ability to survive the ice-locked winter here is amazing.)

The rubythroat remained elusive. Short phrases of an unusual song — jumbles of high-pitched warbles and trills — teased us. But the song disappeared with a shift in the wind.

At last we spotted a brown bird on the mesh wall of a crab pot, next to a yellow rope. I watched as the bird sang into the storm, its puffed-up throat flashing scarlet red. It was a rubythroat all right. For the next hour, it put on quite a show, flitting about and singing all the while.

Murres at High Bluffs

Just west of the kittiwake colony at Ridge Wall is a murre colony at High Bluffs. I park where the dirt road ends at the island’s southwest corner and hike north along the edge of the bluffs. Here, the emerald-green landscape gradually rises up to Rush Hill, the island’s highest point of 665 feet.

Along the way, the fog lifts to reveal a large white bird sitting on the tundra: a Snowy Owl! I keep an eye out for another white-feathered visitor, the McKay’s Bunting. Well, in truth it is a McKay’s x Snow Bunting hybrid. Snow Buntings have black backs and wings, while McKay’s Buntings, an Alaskan specialty, are almost entirely white. Our hybrid bird has a patchwork of black and white on its wings and back. It may be breeding with a Snow Bunting. In recent years, we’ve sighted a few more birds with patchwork wings. The sightings inspire a humorous debate: How many McKay’s hybrid sightings does it take before you can list a full McKay’s?

The 400-foot cliffs rage with life. The sky is an air-traffic controller’s worst nightmare. Kittiwakes hover and circle on the updrafts; fulmars make big stiff-winged loops; auklets, puffins, and murres zoom through in beeline-straight flight, flapping furiously to keep their heavy bodies airborne. The water below is splotched with rafts of kittiwakes. All along the cliffs, Thick-billed and Common Murres cram shoulder to shoulder. They lay only one egg, depositing it right on the ledges and holding it in place with their feet.

Of all the birds on St. Paul, I am most entertained by the murres. Their sarcastic laughter is contagious. They play tug-of-war with seaweed strands. They fight with neighbors. They misjudge landings and crash onto ledges, sending birds tumbling. Off-duty parents occasionally try to incubate rocks. Once, I even watched a Thick-billed Murre spend a week sheltering a kittiwake chick under its wing; the chick had apparently wandered from its proper nest.

Fancy meeting you

Below are 20 species that were added to the American Ornithologists’ Union and American Birding Association checklists of North American birds after having first been seen on the Pribilofs. Asterisks mark birds found on St. George Island.

Tafted Duck                                       May 1911
Gray-tailed Tattler                        October 1911
Hawfinch                                  November 1911
Brambling                                    October 1914
Falcated Duck                                  April 1917*
Jack Snipe                                               1919
Red-necked Stint                         August 1920
Fork-tailed Swift                           August 1920*
Bean Goose                                      April 1946
Common Swift                                  June 1950
Far Eastern Curlew                           June 1961
Spotted Redshank                   September 1961
Little Stint                                 September 1961
Common Greenshank                        May 1962
Gray Wagtail                                 October 1962
Temminck’s Stint                           August 1965*
Common Sandpiper                          May 1966*
Sky Lark                                            May 1967*
Oriental Turtle-Dove                         June 1984
Chinese Pond-Heron                     August 1996

On another occasion, I watched an egg roll away from a parent. It was easy to spot because most murre eggs are a stunning turquoise. Watch long enough at Ridge Wall or High Bluffs and you may spot one. The eggs are pointed at one end, so they roll in a tight circle, not off the cliff.

This particular parent tried to maneuver the egg back between its feet, using a wing. But the egg kept rolling farther away. Once the egg reached a distance of 24 inches, the bird no longer recognized it. “Where’s the egg?” the apparently confused murre seemed to ask.

Clouds of auklets

On the way back to town, St. Paul’s western road passes by a small peninsula known as Zapadni Point. On one side, so many northern fur seals lounge on the beach that you can barely see the sand. On the other side, rocky beaches make a perfect home for auklets. Chubby and powerful, the diving birds spend their lives far out in the Bering Sea, coming to land for only a brief nesting time between June and July.

Visit the Zapadni area in the morning or evening for the best auklet shows. Least and Crested Auklets return from the sea, zooming by in dense, noisy flocks. After several passes, the birds alight on every boulder on the beach. The Least Auklets chitter, high-pitched. Like squat bowling pins, they sit bolt upright. Their posture and big white eyes dotted with tiny black pupils make them look constantly startled.

Occasionally, one scampers off its boulder and disappears from view. Least Auklets raise their chicks in the crevices between the rocks. You’ll hear the adults’ complaints and the chicks’ begging if you walk near their rocky homes.

Crested Auklets are quail-size black birds with orange, hooked bills and a topknot of forward-curling feathers. The feathers give off a scent of tangerines you can sometimes smell as they fly overhead, barking and hooting in their trumpet-like voices. Farther up the short cliffs, pairs of less social Parakeet Auklets survey the beach. They have upswept bills that help them scoop up their diet of plankton and jellyfish.

Seabirds near and far

It’s almost 10 p.m. Only a few hours of daylight remain, so I head toward home. Just before reaching the village of St. Paul, I pause to watch two Gray-tailed Tattlers pick their way along Salt Lagoon’s muddy shoreline. The pale-gray Asian shorebirds eventually take flight, calling out in a single, clear whistle that helps differentiate them from Wandering Tattler’s rapid series of notes.

When the tide is out, Salt Lagoon is a good place to see migrating shorebirds and flocks of Rock Sandpipers. (The birds are larger and paler on the Pribilofs than on the mainland.) Other good shorebird and waterfowl hotspots are the numerous lakes and marshes dotting the eastern half of St. Paul. Check for Eurasian Wigeon and Aleutian Canada Goose, and keep an eye out for ducklings of Northern Pintail, Eurasian Green-winged Teal, and Long-tailed Duck. If you don your Alaskan sneakers and wade through the marshes, you might also flush up such rare visitors as Common Snipe, Pectoral and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, maybe even a Ruff.

I continue through town to the sand dunes of Reef Point. Winds blow at 35 knots. Another big storm is rolling in, so I join a tour group for an evening sea-watch. We set up our spotting scopes in the relative shelter of a wind-rocked van and scan the ocean horizon.

Glaucous-winged Gulls and a Red-legged Kittiwake circle close to shore. A single Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel flutters just above the water, pattering its feet along the surface. Farther out, the white water tosses puffins, murres, Red-necked Phalaropes, and a colorful male King Eider up and down like bath toys. We focus our scopes even farther out to sea.

Suddenly, a dark, long-winged bird streaks into view. I lose sight of it behind an ocean wave but quickly spot another bird. It never flaps its wings but travels at amazing speed, skimming the ocean waves. “Short-tailed Shearwaters!” my companions shout. We watch the seabirds pass by in mind-boggling numbers. We estimate about 5,500 traveled south in an hour, and I begin to comprehend just how rich the Bering Sea really is.Birdwatching in the Pribilofs is amazing. For a few short months, ocean-going birds gather by the millions for a short, chaotic, noisy, smelly, highly social season. And in exchange for the small discomfort of living in rain gear and damp socks, you get the chance to hear their unforgettable voices and see their awkward antics with your feet firmly set on land. I wish every birder could experience it at least once.

Emily Drew is a biologist and freelance writer. She has studied Bering Sea seabirds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and songbirds in southeast Alaska for the U.S. Forest Service. She lives in Washington State.