St. Paul Island, Alaska: May 22-26, 2009

On May 21, 2009 I left work in the afternoon and took a long miserable flight with a three hour layover in Salt Lake City, to Anchorage, AK. My plane didn’t arrive until 1:00AM. I had no time for anything but to find my hotel in Anchorage. May 22, 2009, I got up as early as I could and drove to the Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage where I was hoping to see a Hudsonian Godwit. It was low tide and there were only Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls on the islands and Red-necked Grebes in the lagoon. I walked the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to the railroad depot but there were nothing but Orange-crowned Warblers and no shorebirds on the mudflats. I had no spotting scope to scan and anything out there would have been too far. So I left and headed to the airport where I was to meet my Wilderness Birding Adventures group for a trip to the Pribilof Islands, 750 miles off the coast of Anchorage in the Bearing Sea.

I met my group, our leader, Aaron Laing, and four other guys at the Anchorage Airport which is still named after that convicted criminal, Ted Stevens, and we caught a small twin engine plane to St. Paul Island, one of four islands that make up the Pribilof Islands, some three hours west. St. Paul is home to 200 permanent residents, mostly native Inupiat Eskimos and the largest breeding colony of Northern Fur Seals in the world.

Upon landing we checked into the tiny King Eider Hotel and then immediately headed to a pond where we quickly found a Common Greenshank, a Eurasian species rarely found on St. Paul and certainly nowhere else in North America at all. Everyone was very excited especially Aaron. I couldn’t remember if I had seen one in South Africa when I was there in December 2007 or not. I told Susan before I left for the Pribilofs that if we saw some common Asian species that she and I had already seen I would have to fake enthusiasm. After some nice looks at the Greenshank we began a thorough scouring of town looking for another rarity. The other van, a group with High Lonesome Birding, found it first and radioed us. We raced over and I got a brief look at a Dusky Thrush, a species I had never even heard of before that day. We got out and I briefly filmed it before it flew away. It was overcast and windy. After loosing the Dusky Thrush we headed over to the Trident Fish Factory for dinner. We would have all our meals there for the next four days. The fish they served at dinner was very good but the vegetables were canned, the salads featured iceberg lettuce, and everything was cooked in massive quantities of butter. After dinner we drove to Polvina Pond and found a Wood Sandpiper (uncommon breeder on St. Paul) a Common Sandpiper, a Eurasian species, and miraculously a Common Snipe, a Eurasian Species that closely resembles our Wilson’s Snipe. After enjoying the sandpipers and tramping through the marsh for as long as we could we then headed back to the King Eider Hotel which is really a bunkhouse, to settle in for the night. It was nearly 10:00 PM and still like midday out, when Aaron said we would meet in the lounge area to go over our bird list for the day. It became apparent right away that I could never add anything to the conversation. Aaron could talk about nothing but birds. We went over the list and Aaron announced the bird of the day. Everyone agreed that the Dusky Thrush was the winner. It was still light out when I went to bed after 11:00 PM but breakfast was not until 8:00 AM so that was OK.

May 23, I got up and made myself some Peets coffee I had brought because there was no way I was going to drink Vulgar’s (Folgers). A lady was in the coffee pot already. She was with the High Lonesome group. She was excited about a Pintail out the window which she tried to point out to me but I either couldn’t get excited enough or couldn’t see it. She was a retired neurologist from Cleveland. We had nothing in common so after my coffee I went and had a shower. Scott, the TDX (the Eskimo tribe that owns St. Paul) tour guide, was late picking us up so I took a picture of one of the few breeding birds on the island, a Rosy-crowned Finch which is a subspecies found only on the Pribilofs. You have to hike above 10,000 feet to see one in California. Scott drove us to Trident and we had breakfast. The men were gorging themselves on pancakes, stuffed crepes, eggs, and sausages. I filled my plate with fruit. At $9.00 it was a very expensive plate of fruit. Aaron and Scott discussed birds. Back outside after breakfast some arctic foxes were lounging on the rocks. It was sunny and not very cold for St. Paul. Scott divided the groups up and he drove our group to a fur seal rookery with some steep cliffs. We climbed up the cliffs (except for Alex who couldn’t make it) and got very close to breeding Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Least Auklets, Parakeet Auklets, Crested Auklets, and lots and lots of Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were having a great time looking at all the sea birds and taking lots of photos but Aaron felt bad for Alex and went to the base of the cliff to join him. Scott became restless after a couple of hours and pressured us to leave. We reluctantly left the cliff and rejoined Alex and Aaron who had found another Common Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper in the pond below the cliffs. There were two ladies from Anchorage who had joined us who were not really birders, Marsha and Leslie. They were having a great time on the cliffs too and asking lots of questions. Soon it was time for lunch so we headed over to the Trident Fish Plant. During lunch Scott and Aaron discussed birds. I never got to add anything. After lunch I walked outside while the men had seconds and saw an Arctic Fox still in its winter coat (all the rest I saw had already obtained their summer coats). Soon Aaron came outside and addressed the group. He told us we had three choices– relax until 3:30, go find some Emperor Geese, or tramp through the marshes around Polvina Pond to see what we could scare up. It was quite obvious what Aaron wanted to do but since the four of us had paid $2800 to come to St. Paul with Wilderness Birding Adventures he had to at least pretend we had a choice. The four of us looked at him incredulously about the first choice. Why would we pay thousands of dollars to “relax?” We all said we did not want to “relax” and had no preference between 2 and 3. So Aaron made an executive decision we would walk all the way around Polvina Marsh looking for something new. Marsha and Leslie asked to be dropped off at the fur seal rookery. We dropped them off and then Scott dropped us of at Polvina Marsh and left to take a nap. As an employee of TDX, he would be living on the island for the next four months. After Scott dropped us Aaron told us that last year the bird guides had instituted a rule of taking a break after lunch during which time no birding was done. It sounded insane to me. Why would you pay that much money to go lounge at the hotel? The hotel was bare bones and there was not much to do there. The leader of the High Lonesome tour apparently was abiding by the lunch break rule though and taking his group back to the hotel after lunch until 3:30. It seemed way too tame for me and I was glad I was not on the High Lonesome tour. The leader, Phil, was much older than Aaron. And even though Aaron was self centered, selfish, bookish, and obsessive, at least he was energetic. And Aaron was a fantastic bird spotter and had a great ear for bird songs even low pitched shorebird songs and was incredibly knowledgeable about birds in general. I was hesitant to lug my Canon and my Sony professional video camera into the marsh and so I opted for the Sony only since that is my preference. Aaron gathered us in a circle before starting out and made us think about what we wanted to see. He had us focus on Black-tailed Godwit and asked us to conjure one by positive thoughts. We started out into the marsh knee deep in our Neos (waterproof overboots). I heard a bird and put my binoculars on it. I was not yet decided on what it was before Aaron yelled out, “Black-tailed Godwit!” Black-tailed Godwit is a Eurasian species that is casual on St. Paul Island. The bird flew high and away but after a few minutes it flew back and landed approximately where we first found it. I took a picture of it with my video camera. Aaron would not let me get closer. I should have ignored the little bastard and walked toward it. He was so busy taking pictures with his stupid point and shoot lined up with his spotting scope (commonly known as digiscoping) that he couldn’t be bothered with the fact that my video camera takes inferior pictures at that distance and we were on the trip for the benefit of the paid customers. I was lamenting that I had not lugged my Canon out there when I began to have the urge to urinate. There was nowhere in sight to hide and I was with four guys! Aaron took picture after picture and blabbed on and on about birds. Finally he decided we had to head back to the road and give up on continuing around Polvina I guess because he didn’t want to flush the bird before the others got to see it. We went across the road and I went into a sand dune to relieve myself. We walked into the marsh we had checked the first day and refound the Common Snipe. After a while Scott arrived to pick us up. Aaron and Scott discussed birds in the van. We returned to the hotel and met Stefan who had arranged to use a four wheel drive truck. Although the truck held six, only someone of my short stature could have fit in the middle back seat so I volunteered . Aaron who is about six foot four sat in the front middle and crushed my legs. He discussed birds with Stefan on the way out to the northeast corner of the island which was partially blocked by a sand pile in the road. The goal was an Eye-browed Thrush that had been spotted two days earlier. Stefan made it through the sand in four wheel drive and we swept the barren plane leading to the coast where the fur seals roosted but found nothing but some resident Rock Sandpipers (a subspecies endemic to the Pribilof Islands) and Snow Buntings. Stefan took us to a secluded beach where some gulls were combing the beach. Aaron announced that the one closest to us was a Vega Herring Gull. I looked at it and it was screaming SLATY-BACKED GULL! I said wow that’s a very dark Herring Gull and it’s bigger than the nearby Glaucous Gull. Hmm. After going on and on about the eye color and ignoring the dark mantle and screaming pink legs, diagnostic features of a Slaty-backed Gull, Aaron finally conceded that it was indeed one. We scanned the ocean afterwards but there was little besides some very distant Red-faced Cormorants (a Pribilofs specialty bird that breeds there) and some even more distant King Eiders. Soon we left for dinner. During dinner we rejoined Scott and Scott and Aaron discussed birds. After dinner Aaron asked me if I had seen an Emperor Goose before. I started to tell him the story about going to Bodega Bay when he abruptly cut me off . Alex had never seen one before and was anxious to do so. Another TDX employee, Sean, took us to look for the Emperor Geese. It was clear that Sean was not nearly the same caliber birder as Aaron the Great and Scott. But he was nice enough and he soon walked us out to a point where we found them on a sand bar. There was a beautiful male King Eider that Aaron showed me in his scope and some Harlequin Ducks and Long-tailed Ducks. I took a very distant photo of a female King Eider.

After birding until 10:00 PM, Aaron insisted that we meet to go over the bird list and choose the bird of the day. They had all seen a Bar-tailed Godwit at the seal rookery that I had missed but Keith and I had seen a Lesser Scaup that they had missed. So our numbers were off and Aaron was visibly upset. Then it was time to choose the bird of the day. Aaron said he knew there would be dissension. I said the male King Eider, a fairly common bird of the Pribilofs. Aaron looked shocked and gave me a very disapproving look. Alex announced his choice, Emperor Goose because he had never seen one before whereas he and Aaron had found a Black-tailed Godwit a few days earlier on Adak Island in the Aluetian chain on an earlier trip. Then I said while the King Eider was very beautiful in actuality my choice was by far and away the Black-tailed Godwit, a much rarer bird that I in all probability will never see again. Ted, a very uptight effete from Portland, Oregon, sheepishly announced that at the risk of incurring the castigation of the group for choosing such a common bird, his bird of the day was a Lapland Longspur that he spent a long time with. The island was nearly covered from shore to shore this time of year with Lapland Longspurs to the point that no one ever even stopped to give them a second look. So I would say his comment more likely than not did cause an internal snicker with Aaron the Almighty Birder. Both of them were shameless listers and chasers and everyone already had Lapland Longspur on every conceivable list they might keep so there was no need to even consider the lowly Lapland Longspur. Aaron, as gentle and kind hearted as he was, feigned approval of Ted’s choice. Ted was an ostentatious chaser who related numerous stories while we were there of chasing after this bird or the other in Oregon. I don’t care for chasers or listers and he was the worst sort of lister, with a list for nearly everything. He kept copious notes on every single nook and cranny we visited on that tiny island asking Aaron repeatedly where are we now, where were we five minutes ago. It was all getting so tedious between the lister/chaser Ted and the incredibly self-centered and rabid single topic talker Aaron in the confined space of a tiny island in the middle of the Bearing Sea. Everyone went off to bed leaving just Aaron and me. I told him that I had been to South Africa and that’s why I wasn’t sure if I had seen the Common Greenshank or Common Sandpiper. I told him I had seen 241 birds there. He did not ask me one single question about it, only said he had never been there and then turned the subject back to himself. So I begged off to bed and had a couple of shots of whiskey before falling asleep.

May 24, Aaron and Scott had gone to sitting across from each other during all meals and talking incessantly about birds from the moment they encountered each other in the morning and continuing all through the day. One of them mentioned Paul Lehman, a famous birder who spent some time on the Pribilofs, and Aaron said, “I can’t talk to him because all he ever talks about is birds.” I said, “I don’t know how to tell you two this but that’s all y’all talk about.” They both said it wasn’t true. (In their defense someone did mention once what an idiot Sarah Palin was and how even in the Pribilofs we could not see Russia). After breakfast we drove to some point and did a sweep of a rocky shoreline. Aaron spotted a Hermit Thrush that somehow eluded all six of us and got away. Hermit Thrushes are very common across North America. But Aaron was keeping a trip list and was excited to add a new bird to our cumulative total. I was wondering how to get excited about paying $2800 to see a bird I could see at home. By the time we finished sweeping the shoreline it was time for lunch. When we got to Trident I purposely moved way to the end of the table away from Aaron and Scott because I simply could not listen to them talk about birds non-stop for one more minute. It was so tedious; what bores! So Aaron said to me, “oh that’s a good idea; let’s mix it up.” Then he moved closer to me and Scott promptly sat across from Aaron so I couldn’t get away from them. I went to the bathroom and a lady from the High Lonesome group came in. She confided to me that our group was much better than hers. Despite Aaron’s boorishness and mind numbing obsessive chatter about birds he was a very good bird guide within an incredible ear for obscure bird songs and excellent bird identifying skills. But it wasn’t hard to beat a group that “relaxed” from after lunch until 3:30 PM! I could barely tolerate my lunch while Scott and Aaron continued their loud bird palaver which I was not allowed to add to or participate in in any way. So when I finished I went back outside into the wind to watch the foxes and auklets on the cliffs. When the others came back out Scott dropped us off at the town marsh which we tramped through and found another two Wood Sandpipers. Later we went to a slough where we found yet another Wood Sandpiper, some Eurasian Wigeons, and a Semi-palmated Plover. It was gray, wind swept, and overcast but not stormy like it usually is on St. Paul. We were planning a sea watch for that evening after dinner and it was shaping up to be a cold one. For our last stop before dinner we went to a ridge top with a lake in it. They were all praying for a Smew but I was praying for a Mongolian Plover. We saw neither. So after hiking to the empty lake we all sat beside it and rested a while. For the first and only time of the whole trip I got to tell a story. I told them about my friend, Ken, who was abandoned by the bird guiding company, Rockjumper, when they had a secret meeting and kicked him off the group because his camera was too big deserting him in Madagascar. They were all incredulous and it became the group joke later when they found I did not scrupulously keep a life list as they did. When I said that I had a California Condor on my life list (not permissible by ABA Rules) Aaron said they were going to have a meeting and kick me off of the group and leave me on St. Paul Island.
Dinner was more tedious bird talk from Aaron and Scott and then after dinner we went to a point and had our sea watch. It was very windy and cold and I was dressed like an Eskimo. There were many Northern Fulmars flying about but my target bird was a Short-tailed Shearwater. Ted got his scope on a shearwater far out in the ocean. I got my binoculars on it and it did indeed resemble a shearwater in its shape and behavior. Aaron said it was a Short-tailed Shearwater and I said, “That’s my lifer Short-tailed Shearwater? It could be any shearwater. How could I tell from that distance?” He said that Short-tailed Shearwater was the only one that occurred on St. Paul. So I added a very disappointing look at a life bird. Aaron let me use his scope after a while so he could sit down next to Scott and discuss birds. I scoped and scoped the ocean and finally Keith (the nicest and most normal guy on the trip) found a much closer Short-tailed Shearwater that he got me on as well. Still it was much too far away. No one was really interested in the sea watch but me. So after a while we had to leave and go back to the King Eider Hotel. On the way back Scott yelled out Curlew and slammed on the brakes and everyone jumped out. I put my bins to my eyes but they were completely fogged over and I didn’t see it. Fortunately it was only a Whimbrel (very common year round resident in San Francisco). It was 10:30 PM but Aaron insisted we have our nightly meeting to go over the bird list. This was the night it finally came out that Keith and I had seen the Lesser Scaup and no one else had seen it. Ted saw it but refused to add it to his list because he could not independently identify it at that time (what a punctilious pain in the rear). Then it was time to decide on bird of the day. We hadn’t really seen anything too terribly exciting and I was hoping Aaron would skip over me and ignore me like he usually did. He piped in that the Hermit Thrush was going to be his highlight (I repressed an eye roll) because his heart raced when he saw it but then decided it had to be the Whimbrel (I may have yawned at that point). By that time I think he was so immersed in himself that he forgot to ask me my bird of the day and so I escaped to my whiskey and bed.

May 25, 2009, was Memorial Day and our last day on St. Paul Island. It was overcast after two fine days of sunshine but no storms to blow in any rarities. I trudged to bird palaver breakfast with Scott and Aaron. I ate my $9.00 plate of fruit and then escaped the incessant bird chatter to the cliffs outside. There were the same auklets and puffins flying back and cross from the cliffs to the ocean. As I was admiring them in their beautiful breeding plumage Aaron walked up and asked if I was saying goodbye. Actually I was because although Tufted Puffins occur in California waters the only ones I’ve ever seen there were from a rocking boat and were in their not so exciting winter plumage. Scott assigned himself to Aaron and Stefan to High Lonesome. We drove to another sea cliff to see a nesting Red-legged Kittiwake. We walked to the top and had excellent views of nesting Fulmars in various plumages including this dark morph. I was led to believe there would also be a nesting Red-faced Cormorant but incredibly even though Scott lives on the island he did not know where to find one! I was disappointed because although we had seen quite a few they had all been in flight and I had been unable to either film or photograph one. I found it odd that someone could live there full time as the birding guide and not know where one nested. Oh well what could I do about it. Aaron sat by Scott while we took photos and they discussed birds. After a while we left to have lunch at Trident for the last time. Scott and Aaron discussed birds while I tried in vain to ignore them. After lunch we went back to the King Eider, packed, checked out, and checked our bags with PenAir. The plane was late by about three hours so after Scott returned from a nap I finally convinced him to take us out for one last time to look for birds. I had read so much about the Pribilof Islands in bird books and all the rare birds that have occurred there over the years, many of which were discovered hiding from the fierce winds in the crab pots that are stacked up in long huge rows during the off season, but curiously we had not checked them not once during our trip. Since we had an extra three hours Aaron suggested that Scott take us to check them. Aaron and Scott walked between the rows while the rest of us stood slightly ahead and on both sides looking for flushed birds. Near the end I put my bins on some motion and found a Hoary Redpoll– a new bird for the trip! I yelled out Redpoll and everyone got a good look at it. Yeah, I found one bird and it became the bird of the day. We walked around town and I found one lonely blooming flower– some type of buttercup hunkering down low to the ground. Aaron found an escaped Cockatiel on somebody’s roof. We also walked around a pond with some just emerging willows that were only as high as my boot top. Aaron spotted a Bald Eagle. Then it was time to catch our flight to Anchorage. The plane only held 12 people and had no toilet! Good thing I am short. Near Anchorage we passed an erupting volcano– the Redoubt Volcano. Since our plane was three hours late I barely had any time at all to make one last desperate attempt for the Hudsonian Godwit. Now that Aaron had found the Black-tailed Godwit the second day, I had seen all the Godwits that occur in North America except Hudsonian which everyone assured me was “easy” in Anchorage. As soon as the plane landed I quickly said good bye to everyone (they were all continuing on to St. Lawrence Island for 10 days! Lucky bastards) and then rushed down to get a rental car and headed back to Westchester Lagoon. I could not find the directions and ended up tearing all my clothes out of my suitcase before fishing it out of the very bottom. Finally around 10:00 PM I arrived at the Lagoon. I walked from the car to the closest island with only my binoculars. There were the usual Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns. Then I heard a bird calling and looked over to see one lonely Godwit flying into the island– one Hudsonian Godwit. I studied it with my bins to make a positive id and then flew over to my car to get my video camera for one brief shot of it before it flew back to Cook Inlet to roost for the night. It wasn’t nearly as pretty as the Black-tailed Godwit I had seen on St. Paul Island. Where were the hundreds of them everyone claimed you could see in Anchorage? No matter, I only needed one. It was nearly midnight when the sun set in Anchorage and people were still picnicking at the park. I headed off to bed at the Holiday Inn.

May 26, 2009, I got up as soon as I was able and after packing and drove to Hillside Park for some last minute birding. I couldn’t find any crossbills- just lots of mosquitoes so I left and headed back to Convicted Felon Airport. As the plane took off the pilot said he would bank so that those on the right side of the plane could see some glacier but after a few minutes he came on and said he lied but if you were sitting on the left side, where I was seated, you could see a rare sight–Mt. McKinley or Denali completely unobstructed by clouds! The guy in the window seat said to crawl over him he didn’t mind, so I could see this spectacular sight. I had been to Denali in 1995 and we never saw Mt. McKinley the whole time (my brother reminds me of this every time I see him) even after taking a 72 mile bus trip to Wonder Lake, which is fairly typical. I looked out the window and sure enough there it was all 20,320 feet of it. What a way to end my trip!
Life Birds:
Common Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Red-faced Cormorant
Red-legged Kittiwake
Dusky Thrush
Short-tailed Shearwater
Hudsonian Godwit
Michelle Brodie
June 2, 2009

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