Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

Birds and Fur Seals on the Pribilof Islands, July 3, 2015


St Paul signMorning dawned with even thicker fog than at our arrival the night before. But we were determined to find as many birds as possible – one of the three reasons for stopping here (the other two being the fur seals and that the island was on our way north). St Paul is known for its many unique sea- and shorebirds that aren’t easy to spot elsewhere. It’s famed in bird-nerd circles (a term I use affectionately!) for red-legged kittiwakes, crested auklets, least auklets, parakeet auklets, horned and tufted puffins, etc. Bird nerds come from all over the world and brave the long toilet-less flight from Anchorage – and they bear with Spartan accommodations and cold and wind and fog – just to spot these little feathery friends. So Seth and I were most definitely going to find the famed birds, too!

St Paul lagoon

St Paul lagoon

We set out after breakfast in the fog and cold and wind to walk to the cliffs we’d seen when approaching St Paul.

It was a long walk on a very dusty road, past a lagoon with green teals (fun – first spotting!) and rock sandpipers (another first!) and even a few Arctic foxes foraging on the beach.

Then we climbed up a grassy hill to reach the top of the cliffs. Only to find there was almost no way to see over them without falling!

Don't want to get any closer to the edge....

Don’t want to get any closer to the edge….

We finally got a decent enough spot to see thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and a couple of puffins but nothing satisfactory in the way of photography and none of the fun rarities like crested auklets. Still, the murres made an impressive nesting colony!

Colony of thick-billed murres

Part of the colony of thick-billed murres

King crab traps on St Paul

King crab traps on St Paul

Feeling a little down about our birding (we’d had such soaring expectations!), we walked back past the lagoon and stacks of King crab traps.  We stuck our heads in the tiny NOAA office to see if anyone there knew a better place to find birds, but no one was in. So we went back to the boat for lunch, and there met with Terence, a fisherman who generously bestowed on us big ziploc bags full of halibut filets and who asked us over for beers. Since it was only a little after noon we put off the latter till evening and set off for another try with the birding.

Leaving the dock, we stopped to ask the woman in the harbor office about docking fees and on a whim I also asked her where to find puffins.  Easy, she said. Just a mile outside town, and she gave us directions.

Off we went, hot-footing it to the windward side of town where the dirt road petered out into a sand dune track which ended about 3/4 of a mile later in a sign saying not to disturb the nesting fur seals on the beaches beyond. But up to our left was a narrow trail through tall dune grass that led up a cliff.  And lo and behold! There were all kinds of good spots for viewing and photographing the gorgeous and comic birds nesting and roosting on the rocky cliff!

A better spot for watching puffins!

A better spot for observing…

Tufted Puffins!

…Tufted Puffins!

Despite the fog we lay there in the grass, steadying the zoom lens and just watching the beautiful little birds for hours.

Maybe my favorite bird? A Least Auklet! (he's tiny - only 6 inches!)

Maybe my favorite bird? A Least Auklet! (he’s tiny – only 6 inches!)

Although this guy's a rival favorite! Crested auklet!

Although this guy’s a rival favorite! Crested auklet!

Parakeet auklets, a close runner-up!

Parakeet auklets, a close runner-up!

Red-faced cormorant

Red-faced cormorant

We’d set out at about 1PM and it was 5PM before we wandered back down to the sign about the fur seals, which also mentioned staying within the blinds when viewing the seals. The blinds were easy to reach, so we were soon ensconced behind them, watching the fur seals without them being aware of us.

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seal

They were even more comic than the birds! The bulls made wonderful barking noises like sea lions and the females and babies added a sort of chirping background music.

They flopped in and out of the water, dozed in the lee of boulders, and occasionally two bulls would lunge at each other, barking all the time, when one thought the other was too close to his harem.  They were huge and (of course) furry with tiny heads and long whiskers and very long flippers.  We didn’t tire of watching them for another few hours.

Bull fur seals in a minor dispute

Bull fur seals in a minor dispute

The sun started to come out while we were in the blind, until all the fog had burned away and sunlight was sparkling on blue water!  We got our cameras out again to take all our pictures over again with better light and then decided to do the same with the birds.  So back to the cliff where time flew by as we enjoyed the sun and (comparative) warmth (we took off our wool gloves!).

Tufted puffin in the sun!

Tufted puffin in the sun!

Cormorant flying high above the ocean and long strings of kelp

Cormorant flying high above the ocean and long strings of kelp

Cliffs in the sun

Cliffs in the sun

Celeste in the 10PM sunlight

Celeste in the 10PM sunlight

When we finally started walking home to Celeste it was 9PM and we were starving.  But the sun was still high in the sky, the wind was dying down and people were out and about in the rare beautiful weather.  We joined Terence for a beer and met his boat’s skipper Ralph, with whom we hit it off right away.  Soon we were sharing their chicken dinner and drinking more beer and all of a sudden it was 1:30 in the morning!  None of us had noticed since the sun still hadn’t set.

All in all, an amazing first day on our first new landfall of the summer!

Author: Ellen

sailor, writer, photographer

16 thoughts on “Birds and Fur Seals on the Pribilof Islands, July 3, 2015

  1. Continue to be impressed with all you are doing, and will forward your latest to our best bird nerd friends here in Mexico!
    Onward, Lanny and Bill

  2. Pingback: Arctic Voyage Video: Episode 2 | Gone Floatabout

  3. Fantastic photos!

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  5. What a big day to start your explorations,so much to see and what a long day and half the night. Lucky to meet such a nice helpful man TERENCE, we are good people, cheers Terence

    • Hi Terence! Yes, it was great meeting Terence and Ralph! Both wonderful people – good fun and so generous! We kept up with them the rest of the summer via email but sadly weren’t able to connect in person again after leaving St Paul.

  6. Those photos are stunning, wow.

  7. Very exciting! We love puffins… Before we bought Take It Easy we looked at monos and decided if we bought one it would have to be called Puffin😀. We would dearly like to see some. Your photos are terrific.

    • Thank you! We were very excited to see the puffins and all the other fun little auklets! So cute! I hope you do get a chance to see some, whether or not aboard Take It Easy! Though you certainly have a lot of life-list birds in Australia!!

  8. Great pictures! Those puffins are so cute!

  9. Incredible bird photos on St Paul!

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