St. Paul, Pribilof Islands Alaska 2018 Trip Report

By Eric Rock on Aug 02, 2018

Every journey begins with a single step. For our photography journey to St. Paul, one of Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, our group’s trip began with a single flight. After a slight delay, the three-hour flight over the Bering Sea was smooth and comfortable. Weather conditions, primarily strong winds and poor visibility on the Pribilofs, can deny aircraft landings. For us, good conditions permitted a direct approach and a safe landing on the remote postage-stamp-size island. Once we were safely on the ground, the stage was set for five days of photographic exploration of this avian Eden.
The island’s cliffs are the focal point for bird activity and the summer breeding season was well under way. Transportation around the island was easy with our Sprinter van. We concentrated our photographic activities along the cliffs where horned and tufted puffins nest. These same nesting cliffs also attract myriads of parakeet and least auklets, as well as thick-billed and common murres. We found it easy to locate our photographic subjects posed on rocky perches near nest sites, while black-legged and red-legged Kittiwakes whirled by us on their way to and from the cold offshore feeding waters. On our multiple photographic forays to the cliffs the light and scene changed constantly. Inevitability new opportunities arose, allowing us the chance to photograph the close passing of a northern fulmars or red-faced cormorants gliding just beyond arm’s length of our group’s “perch.” One of the many highlights we experienced was a morning spent photographing in the company of groups of crested auklets as they gathered on the cliffs, barking, honking and mixing it up on the rocky volcanic ledges. 
We spent one afternoon visiting a boulder strewn beach for a chance to photograph least auklets, the smallest of the seabirds nesting on St. Paul Island. At first, the birds were wary and moved off at our approach, but once we picked out a place to sit among the boulders and settled in, the birds became more comfortable and whirled in for a close encounter. Here, the small auklets landed in groups to cover a choice rock where they would squabble like Washington politicians! Eventually an additional auklet would attempt to land and then one would have to leave to make room for the new arrival. It was just as much fun to watch as it was rewarding to photograph the raucous action.
While the cliffs provide the center of activity for seabirds, St. Paul also hosts a variety of ducks and shorebirds on its freshwater ponds and wetlands. Here, we found opportunities to photograph red-necked phalaropes, rock sandpipers and semipalmated plovers, as well as long-tailed ducks. The island songbirds were busy with breeding activity as well and often allowed us a close approach. We could take time to capture images of singing Lapland longspurs, dapper snow buntings, and the ever-present rosy finches.
While our sights were set on photographing the diversity of seabirds that call the island home for the short summer, we also caught the peak of the wildflower bloom. The treeless island was carpeted in the summer’s lush green of the native pushki, or cow parsnip. The green expanse was punctuated with the purple spikes of lousewort, with glades of blue lupine-covered valleys, and highlighted by dancing yellow arctic poppies.
Another high point on our trip was getting some great image-making opportunities with northern fur seals. The Pribilof Islands provide the world’s best access to northern fur seals and opportunities to photograph them. While the viewing platform at the reef rookery was closed for repairs this season our vehicle became the perfect photographic hide to safely and conveniently photograph seals along the drive at the area known as “bachelor beach.” Here, we were able to have seals closely approach our van as we photographed male seal activity along the beach and surrounding tussocks. Shooting with our telephoto lenses from a little higher on the road, we could focus in on some of the breeding behavior at a satellite colony of females with newborn pups. The tight groups of females with pups were attended by a “beachmaster” bull waiting for a chance to breed with a receptive female of his harem.
While I always look forward to a visit to this amazing island photography destination, this time was really one of the best. Not only because the weather and light conditions were very rewarding for photography, but the birds of St. Paul were abundant and active throughout our visit. I must add that the trip was also successful because of the complement of our local birding guides, Claudia and Sully. Most of all, the group of photographers who came together to make this trip memorable were not only adventurous, but great people to spend time photographing with on this small and remote Alaska island.

Related Tags:  alaska, islands, paul, pribilof, st.

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