Fascination with Place

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Above: Crested Auklet, St. Paul Island.

Below: Dall Sheep, Denali National Park.

I had one more adventure awaiting after my friends headed home; I was heading to St. Paul Island, one of the legendary Pribilof Islands.  These two islands, rather isolated in the Bering Sea, are home to legendary concentrations of seabirds and northern fur seals.  Typical Alaskan summer weather caught up with me here, ranging from cool and cloudy to vigorously stormy during my four days here.  But the weather didn’t matter, I was completely overwhelmed with the wildlife. 

Many people are especially fond of the rare, and a couple rare birds did show up on the island, but I’m a big fan of spectacle.  St. Paul has spectacle in spades, with cliffs loaded with charismatic puffins, murres, auklets, and other seabirds.  And the colonies are accessible!  Oh, you’ve got to be comfortable near the edge of a cliff -- there are no handrails here -- but lean over the edge and you might find yourself face to face with nuzzling Parakeet Auklets (right) or a nest-building Red-faced Cormorant (below).  I’ll post a web gallery from St. Paul very soon.

Above: Lee & Karen photograph Red-necked Grebe at nest while Steve & Roger search for other birds.

Below: Kathy, Dawn, & Maureen at the Homer Spit.

Alaska’s weather is notoriously gray, wet, and cold, even in June, but this year most June days were sunny and warm.  Of course Alaska didn’t let us get arrogant about the weather: clouds hid Mt. McKinley (aka Denali) on the days we were nearest the peak, and rogue winds made our boat trip through Kenai Fjords too rough to get to the best birding destinations, but we experienced many truly glorious days.  We missed some creatures we might have hoped to see -- owls were particularly hard to find this year, as favored prey numbers had crashed, as they do cyclicly.  Still, our list of sightings and our cache of memories are long and satisfying.

Above: Chris & Roger scanning for wildlife at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park.

Below: High Bluffs, St. Paul Island.

The wildness and rugged beauty of Alaska are part of the state’s appeal, but for naturalists there’s also the chance to observe and begin to understand ecosystems that are vibrant and very different from those that most of us know best.  The Arctic coastal plain tundra of Barrow and the Bering Sea Island habitat of St. Paul are dramatically different from my eastern deciduous forest roots.  I know these ecosystems just a bit better than I did a month ago.  I’m ready to be home, but I’m also eager to get back and learn more about these great places -- and other parts of Alaska that I’ve yet to see.