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St. Paul Island– One of Those Places That’s For the Birds (and Birders)

I think this was the third spring trip that I’ve made to St. Paul Island, Alaska, over the years, the last one being in 2008 during my ABA big year. It’s one of my favorite places to go birding. The birds are mostly easy to see and easy to identify and many of them are difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, to see anywhere else. Now that I’m living in Alaska, I knew I had to spend some time there as soon as possible after the snows were melted and the birds began nesting.

There can be a problem, however, with birding the far reaches of Alaska, especially during migration, because you can only be at one of these places at once and you can only be there for a limited amount of time (unless you work there) so you ALWAYS miss something that others see before or after you are there or at another of the Alaskan hotspots. As a former big year birder, it is difficult for me to let go of the desire to race around, and just to enjoy whatever birds I can, but on St. Paul Island the up-close-and-personal nature of birding does tend to make worries about what I am not seeing vanish. I can just enjoy the birds that I AM seeing (even though I did miss the Hawfinch that was seen there just before I arrived).

056The way things work on St. Paul Island is that whether you come to the island as part of a formal birding group with its own guide or as an individual without a guide, each day you are taken around to the island’s special spots by the expert guides employed by TDX, the native corporation that owns the island. In other words, going to St. Paul Island comes with its own guides, who rotate from day to day to each of the vans. When any of the guides finds an especially good bird, the other guides are notified and generally drive immediately to that area so all birders on the island have a chance to see the rarity. In the absence of rarities, the vans take the birders to as many of the good birding spots as possible so all can see the regular island birds, birding from after breakfast to about 9-10 pm, with breaks only for lunch and dinner. These spots include places to get views of cliff-nesting birds, generally from spots very high on top of the cliffs, seabird watching spots, mud flats, lakes, sloughs, seal rookeries, hummocky areas around the lakes and away from water, lava fields, hills, and along the roadsides.

As usual the birds were wonderful on St. Paul Island while I was there from the early evening of June 3rd to late on June 8th. As expected the first three species seen were three of the “classic 4” common birds of the island: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Lapland Longspur and Rock Sandpiper, near the airport. The fourth member of the group, Snow Bunting, was seen about an hour later.

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In our trips, we saw the specialty birds of St. Paul Island that are difficult to find elsewhere, the Red-faced Cormorants and Red-legged Kittiwakes, but that are generally easy to find on St. Paul. Other more common birds on and near the cliffs included Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, Least, Crested and Parakeet Auklets, Common and Thick-billed Murres, and Horned and Tufted Puffins.

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1382aOn the lakes, we saw numerous Red-necked Phalaropes, Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, Green-winged Teal (including some of the “Common Teal”), and Northern Pintails, as well as a few Greater Scaup, Buffleheads, and both Goldeneyes. A couple of times we had loon sightings – one Arctic and one Yellow-billed. Along the edges of lakes and sloughs (in addition to the often seen classic 4 species mentioned above) were Semipalmated Plovers, a Wood Sandpiper and a Bar-tailed Godwit hanging out on a spit for much of the time I was on the island. A special treat on a few of our walks was to have very close-up views of the brightly colored female Red Phalaropes busily hunting food on the muddy water edges, ignoring the presence of birders and scopes within a few yards of them.

Other highlights of the trip were a couple of loudly singing, easily visible Pacific Wrens in the long grasses along the cliff tops, a Snowy Owl that made periodic appearances, causing a mad stampede of vans to each site at which it was reported, a Northern Wheatear that allowed everyone on the island to see it at a remote spot and then as far as I know disappeared, a small flock of Wandering Tattlers on a rocky shore area, a Common Sandpiper on another day in a nearby shore area, and a spectacular Siberian Rubythroat found hanging out near a large dump full of old boards near the airport.

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There were also mammals to be found on the island, such as the arctic fox, reindeer, an endemic vole, harbor seals out in the waters around the island, as well as male fur seals awaiting the arrival of the females. Although the areas around the seal rookeries are off-limits to birders, the seals were still easily seen and heard on our nearby birding expeditions.

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943It was an excellent trip. I saw the birds I expected to see, saw a few unexpected birds, met some other avid birders and bird photographers, and ate some very good food at the Trident Seafood dining hall where visiting birders are fed. Although we had balmy weather (in the 30s to 40s generally), we probably could have used a few bad weather days to increase the chances of stray rarity birds being blown on to the island. We did have rain and then fog the last day. One word of caution: if you plan to visit St. Paul (or other remote Alaskan areas): give yourself some leeway on travel times and don’t book other trips too closely to your trips to and from these sites. Foggy weather can (and did this time) cause plane delays or cancellations, as can plane problems.

I hope to go back to St. Paul later this summer/early fall. I know from previous experience that by September the low grassy vegetation, with tiny wildflowers that were just beginning to come up in June, will be replaced by large, lush vegetation. There are likely to be a few different birds then, and of course, there could be rarities arriving as fall migration occurs. I am looking forward to new St. Paul Island adventures.