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