Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

Wind, Foxes, and Birds on St Paul Island, July 5-6, 2015


A huge thank-you to all of you who donated to Seth’s cancer fund-raising campaign at http://mobro.co/sethleonard!  We really appreciate your support!

Back to catching up on the blog!


We last left off with a wonderful but cold 4th of July on St Paul Island in the Bering Sea.  The next day the weather gods added torrential rain to the mix so we spent an uneventful 24 hours: we had our fishermen friends over in the morning, went for a rain-soaked walk in the afternoon, and attended to little things: re-filling our heater’s fuel tank, printing our 4th of July photos to give to the people pictured, mailing letters (yes, they have a post office on St Paul), and listening to the (bad) weather forecasts. For dinner I cooked the halibut Terence had given us, which was predictably delicious!

Breakers below St Paul cliffs

Breakers seen from the clifftops

Fog replaced the rain the next day, so we tramped over to the cliffs again, bent almost double into the wind and swirling dust. (A fun fact about this part of the world is that 35 knot winds don’t necessarily disperse fog….)  Not many birds were about – the smart little guys were in their burrows – but we did see an Arctic fox fairly close up.  Too dusty to get a photo, but wonderful to see – my first Arctic fox!

Unlike in the Aleutians, foxes are native to the Pribilofs but are sadly in decline: according the IUCN Red List, “Misinformation as to the origin of Arctic Foxes on the Pribilofs continues to foster negative attitudes and the long-term persistence of this endemic subspecies is in jeopardy.”

Back in the village, we stopped to see our new friend Alison the bird guide, who didn’t have any clients because their plane couldn’t land in the strong winds and bad visibility.  She suggested we all drive around the island in her van.

She took us first to her favorite place for seeing Least Auklets, where we promptly got the van stuck in the wet sand and had to use flat bits of driftwood under the tires to get it out.  There were lots of cute little auklets, though!

Least Auklets

Once out of the sand, Alison drove to the southwestern point of the island where the full fury of the wind beat the sea into tremendous breakers:


but where we saw lots more fur seals (and a Steller sea lion in the mix), kittiwakes, fulmars, and (through binoculars) two harlequin ducks and (fun rarity!) a King eider offshore.

Seth and Alison on the cliffs

Seth and Alison (right, foreground) looking for birds

The ground was covered in lovely (and evidently hardy) springtime wildflowers, reminding us how short summer is up here.

Wildflowers, St Paul

Wildflowers brave the Bering Sea weather

But our best sighting was an Arctic fox! On the Pribilofs they’re all blue-morph foxes, not the white ones you think of when you hear “arctic fox”.  He was still molting his winter coat.

Arctic fox, blue morph

Blue morph Arctic Fox sheds his winter coat

Alison told us about the negative feelings people on the island have about the foxes and how they’re a bit harassed, which of course lines up well with the IUCN’s assessment (see above) of how this subspecies is in some danger.

Leaving the southwestern cliffs behind, we drove past a sandy beach covered in fur seals

Northern fur seals, St Paul

Northern fur seal haul-out

and then turned inland to a strange volcanic valley, nicely sheltered from the wind.  Here we all started looking for shore birds and were rewarded with a sighting of the most adorable rock sandpiper chicks! They couldn’t have been hatched more than 2 days earlier.

Baby rock sandpiper

Rock Sandpiper chick, not more than 2 days old!

We ended our trip with a foray out to the far eastern end of the island (it’s not a terribly big place, St Paul…) where there’s a lake and marshes.  As Alison predicted, we found green teals and long-tailed ducks (oldsquaws). On our way back to the village we detoured out to the base of St Paul’s highest hill where volcanic rocks provide some shelter for the snow buntings and gray-crowned rosy finches we spotted.  Then it was back to the boat for beers and chat.  Another very good day despite the wind and fog!



10 thoughts on “Wind, Foxes, and Birds on St Paul Island, July 5-6, 2015

  1. Pingback: “There’s No Place Like Nome!” Arrival in Nome, AK, July 11, 2015 | Gone Floatabout

  2. So great to come across your blog – really enjoying it. Great photography too! Nice work!

  3. Pingback: Passage to Nome, Alaska, July 7-11, 2015 | Gone Floatabout

  4. Great narrative ! Can you tell me how you get your weather forecasts? And what you use and how. (step by step please).


    • Thanks, Tom!
      Regarding weather forecasts, when we’re close to shore and concerned with localized forecasts, we listen to the National Weather Service on VHF radio. They broadcast continuously on several different Wx channels and update their forecasts at least twice a day. These forecasts are very good in Alaska where there’s lots of microclimates. NWS divides Alaska into different weather zones and you receive forecasts for your zone and those around you. Of course, NWS broadcasts all over the country – not just in Alaska! In Canada, Environment Canada fills the same role.

      When we’re offshore and/or when we’d like a forecast for a broader area and/or an extended forecast (7 days), we use OCENS WeatherNet via our satellite phone. Our Iridium Extreme phone attaches to a coax cable leading to our permanently mounted external antenna – this allows us to use the phone from the cabin and ensures that it doesn’t drop the signal. Then we plug in (to a 12V outlet) our Optimizer Red Port Wifi router/firewall – this transmits the sat phone signal to our laptops and blocks unwanted traffic that would waste precious minutes!
      Next step is to open the WeatherNet software and select the part of globe for which we’d like forecasts. We also select the types of forecast we want from the sidebar (i.e. GRIB WindWave 7-day). Then we just hit the Download button and it comes in over the sat phone connection. To get GRIB WindWave, GRIB Surface Pressure, and GRIB Precipitation takes between 30 and 50 seconds. We also received ice charts this way, which added another minute or so. OCENS GRIB Explorer software (or MetMapper if you download regular weather charts instead of GRIBs) opens automatically upon completion of the download. This software lets you see the files, animate them, etc. We have some more info on all this on the “OCENS and MVS” page under the “Sponsors” tab. We’ve found it all very user friendly and the forecasts have been remarkably accurate. When we can, we like to consult both the WeatherNet files and the VHF broadcasts – they were both very accurate and lined up well throughout our voyage this past summer.

      I hope this is helpful! Please let us know if you have more questions!

  5. Great finds on the bird front (that chick with the big feet is fun) and we love the photos of the wild sea. What is it about foxes all over the world that makes them so disliked and hunted to death?!

    • We were super excited about all the bird finds – plus, have to admit it’s nice not to be squinting up into tree branches to look for the little guys 🙂 Not sure what it is about foxes – poor things have a bad reputation, but they’ve always seemed kind of cute to me!