St. Paul Island - June 14-18, 2014

In June 2014 I flew to St. Paul Island, situated in the Bering Sea between the USA and Russia. St. Paul, the largest of the Pribilof Islands, is a volcanic mass with a land area of 100 km2. St. Paul Island was discovered by Russian explorers in 1788. Russian fur traders later established a settlement on the island, and brought native Siberian and Aleutian people there as slaves to work with fur seal skins which the traders sold for a great deal of money.

Today about 500 Alaska natives live there, and the island serve as an important base for the Bering Sea crab fisheries. Large colonies of Northern fur seals and rich seabird cliffs make the island teem with life. More than 2.7 million seabirds, ranging from common murre and crested auklet to tufted puffin and cormorant, nest on the Pribilofs, making it the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. The island is a popular destination for North American birders, especially since it often receives Eurasian species rare in North America. It is therefore a favored destination for hardcore ABA birders coming there to tick off their checklists. As a non-birder, I came mainly for seabird photography. I bought my trip through TDX, a company operated by the natives. Although expensive, it was very interesting to visit this Arctic island with its polar climate and exotic wildlife. TDX offered excellent guides who drove us around the island for more than 12 hours a day ensuring extensive birding on the “Galapagos of the North” as it is also called.

Some early-blooming St. Paul Island wildflowers can be seen here.





Crested Auklet (Aethia cristatella)


Crested Auklet


Parakeet Auklet (Aethia psittacula)


Parakeet Auklet


Least Auklet (Aethia pusilla)


Least Auklet


Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata)


Horned Puffin


Horned Puffin


Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)


Tufted Puffin


Tufted Puffin


Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia). Much more common on St. Paul Island than Common Murre


Thick-billed Murre, This species is called Brünnich's Guillemot in Europe


Common and Thick-billed Murre


Thick-billed Murre


Common Murre (Uria aalge)


Common Murre


Red-faced Cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile)


Red-faced Cormorant


Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa brevirostris)


Red-legged Kittiwake


Northern Fulmar, dark morph (Fulmarus glacialis)


Northern Fulmar, light morph


Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)


Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)


Female Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)


Notice how small the Least Auklet is compared to the Tufted Puffin!


Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis)


Rock Sandpiper


Least Auklet


Bad weather


Immature Glaucous-winged Gull with a sea urchin


Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis)


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch


Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)


Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)


St. Paul village


Bird cliffs, St. Paul Island


Russian orthodox church


Trident Fish Factory, where we had all our meals. The food was very good, by the way


St. Paul Island


Windmills on St. Paul Island


Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus)


Arctic Fox


Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus) bull


Northern Fur Seal colony. Only males were onshore at this period


Northern Fur Seal bulls


The bulls can weigh up to 275 kg, and can be dangerous for people coming too close


Pacific Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina ssp. richardsi)


Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)


Blue lupine (Lupinus sp.) completely dominated the landscape on St. Paul Island


Arctic Poppy (Papaver alaskanum)


Andrew, Glenn (TDX guide), and me in front of crab pods


King Crab pods


St. Paul Island urban area


Toward the urban center


Portrait of the Thick-billed Murre


Bird cliff photography


A glimpse of sun! Rarely experienced on St. Paul Island


Otter Island seen from St. Paul Island




St. Paul Airport terminal AND hotel entrance (King Eider Hotel). Quite basic. For example, no running water and shared restrooms in the hallway


St. Paul Island airport "lounge"


OK "rustic" rooms at the King Eider Hotel


A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) on St. Paul Island


A Pelagic Cormorant (Urile pelagicus) with a Red-faced Cormorant (right)


"Whistling" Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus columbianus). The Nearctic subspecies is most common on St. Paul Island


Maybe "Bewick's" Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii)? According to the guides we saw the Palearctic subspecies on the island


Rough weather. It was rainy, windy and foggy most of the time I spent on the island. Not ideal condition for photography. But according to the guides, this was normal local weather


Rough weather can generate shipwrecks



Sneaking up on a Siberian Rubythroat at Hutchinson Hill, St. Paul Island


On lookout for Shearwater, Loon, King Eider and other exotic species


Looking for that Oriental Cuckoo the very first day


Scott, one of the TDX guides. The TDX guides were very committed and provided excellent service



Birding St. Paul Island with TDX

After having been picked up at the airport by the Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX) and installed in our rooms at the King Eider Hotel, we went straight out looking for a rare Oriental Cuckoo. "We" meant me and four other hardcore birders from the lower 48 states. We spent the entire first day looking for two cuckoo species. The first one was the Eurasian Common Cuckoo, which I have seen plenty of in Norway (and which we ultimately caught up with in the quarry). After a while we also came across the Oriental Cuckoo at the north-eastern point of the island. This undoubtly made the day for my fellow US birders. This was the 4th record of the species on St. Paul, and the first since 2004. It was also the 11th ABA record.

I must admit driving and running around for 5 hours the first day only looking for cuckoo's made me a bit skeptical. Was this what I had spent all that money for? Luckily, from day 2, when I was put together with a couple from Washington DC, things became better. These guest were also mainly interested in bird photography, making it a perfect match. We spent up to 14 hours a day out looking for birds. Scott Schuette and Glen Davis, the bird guides for TDX, did an excellent job and directed us to several rare birds they found on the island this year, including the Oriental Cuckoo and the Siberian Rubythroat. Nothing bad to say about the birders I spent the first day with, they were all great fellow travelers. Four full days at St. Paul Island was probably too much anyway, as the summer weather can remain overcast for weeks. And for the rare migrants (I hoped to see the snowy owl there), the best seasons are spring and autumn. All in all, a visit to St. Paul Island is well worht the money, and I highly recommend a trip to this remote Arctic frontier.


List of birds I saw on St. Paul Island

1 Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii  
2 Tundra Swan (+ Bewick's swan) Cygnus columbianus  
3 Northern Pintail Anas acuta  
4 Green-winged Teal Anas crecca  
5 Greater Scaup Aythya marila  
6 King Eider Somateria spectabilis  
7 Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus  
8 Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis Vulnerable
9 Bufflehead Bucephala albeola  
10 Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator  
11 Pacific Loon Gavia pacifica  
12 Common Loon Gavia immer  
13 Yellow-billed Loon Gavia adamsii Near-threatened
14 Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis  
15 Short-tailed Shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris  
SULIFORMES: Phalacrocoracidae
16 Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus  
17 Red-faced Cormorant Phalacrocorax urile  
18 Pelagic Cormorant Phalacrocorax pelagicus  
19 Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus  
20 Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus  
21 Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres  
22 Ruff Calidris pugnax Rare/Accidental
23 Rock Sandpiper Calidris ptilocnemis  
24 Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus  
25 Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius  
26 Pomarine Jaeger Stercorarius pomarinus  
27 Common Murre Uria aalge  
28 Thick-billed Murre Uria lomvia  
29 Parakeet Auklet Aethia psittacula  
30 Least Auklet Aethia pusilla  
31 Crested Auklet Aethia cristatella  
32 Horned Puffin Fratercula corniculata  
33 Tufted Puffin Fratercula cirrhata  
34 Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla  
35 Red-legged Kittiwake Rissa brevirostris Vulnerable
36 Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens  
37 Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Rare/Accidental
38 Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus Rare/Accidental
39 Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Rare/Accidental
40 Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope Rare
41 Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis  
42 Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus  
43 Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis  
44 Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Leucosticte tephrocotis  
45 Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus Rare/Accidental
46 Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea  

Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)

Here is the Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus) we were searching for the first day