Chapter 8. St. Paul Island, The Pribilofs
(Shari) The taxi is right on time to take Bob, Pat, Bert and me to the airport for our flight to The Pribilofs. Why, oh why, did I let Bert talk me into this trip? People ask me why I am going and I have to tell them Bert is making me. I’d rather go to Hawaii. Why, I’d rather go to Beaumont, Texas! I have read that there are no trees, that there is only one town, St. Paul on St. Paul Island, and it has only some 500 people. It will take us 4 hr. to get there on a 30-passenger plane that travels over the Bering Sea towards Russia. On top of that, the highest temperature to be expected there is mid-40s and probably no sunshine, only mist. In fact, flights are often cancelled because conditions do not allow take off or landings. We are lucky today, as it may be raining in Anchorage, but not on St. Paul. Our flight departs in 90 min., so I go looking for a Starbucks and have success. Bob looks for McDonalds. We learn that the plane is full and some baggage will be bumped. We all hope it is not ours, but will not find out until we arrive. Oh great, I packed my toothbrush and toiletries in the bag I checked. We hear one man arguing with an airline employee, saying he is not getting on the plane unless his luggage does. He finds out that his luggage was bumped so he does not get on and that frees 251 pounds of payload to take all of the remaining baggage. I will have my toothbrush tonight. I made some sandwiches for us all and as soon as we reach 10,000 ft. and the seatbelt sign goes off, I had them out. By now I am very hungry and appreciate the bag of chips and the Diet Coke the attendant also gives us. We land in a town called Dillingham to refuel. The plane has to have enough fuel to fly to our destination and back just in case it cannot land. Oh gees! However, the flight is uneventful and we get to St. Paul without incident.
(Bert) I had been warned that baggage sometimes gets bumped from Pen Air flights if the Saab 340 Turbo Jet is overloaded. At the Anchorage Airport, the clerk weighs our checked baggage and carry-on backpacks and asks us our weight (which Shari whispers to the clerk without me hearing). What they do not ask is how much I weigh with all the excess clothes I am wearing. Just before departure, we hear that not all checked baggage will be on the plane as they are overweight by 251 lb. One man seriously objects and announces loud enough for all of us to hear that he wants to go to Dutch Harbor instead of St. Paul Island if his bags are not on the plane. The attendant radios for information and finds out his bags are among those held back, so he will not go with us. Thanks to him all of our baggage is now on board.
Because of the near maximum weight the plane is carrying, we make a refueling stop at Dillingham. As we descend toward this southwestern Alaska village, I see islands of dark green spruce in a sea of light brown grass spread across a flat coastal plain. A backdrop of black-and-white candy-striped mountains edge the plain and countless small circular ponds and meandering streams add pock marks to the plain. While refueling I scan the airport through the open exit door, but cannot find a single bird. We are back in the air again, now flying over the Bering Sea, and less than two hours later the pilot descends to the runway on St. Paul Island.
(Shari) Our first look at the island shows a desolate place. All other views show the same. We walk down the steps of the small plane, across the tarmac in the rain and into a warehouse. I tell Bob it is just like walking in his shed. Old desks are stacked up, as are tires and wheel hubs. I see an old fire truck and more lumber and metal than I care to think about. Finally we are in the “terminal”. We meet our three guides for the next four days: Doug, Ryan, and Scott. They show us to our rooms in the hotel that is attached to the terminal. I learn that the bathroom is down the hall. Now what kind of establishment calls itself a hotel and does not have a bathroom in each room? The room itself is cozy with a double and a twin bed. There is a lounge down the hall with a TV since our room does not have TV. There is also a microwave and a refrigerator for our use. We agree to meet up again in 20 min. to do our first birding.
(Bert) At the airport terminal building–which combines with the King Eider Hotel–we meet Scott, Ryan, and Doug. The latter two will be our birding guides for the next few days. We quickly dump our bags in our rooms and are soon off to birding nearby Weather Bureau Lake. The most well-known bird on the island is Red-legged Kittiwake and, in fact, 80% of the world’s population resides on The Pribilof Islands. The flock of several hundred kittiwakes, which combines Black-legged and Red-legged, is resting on the ice on the far side of the lake, too distant to see legs easily. Instead, Ryan and Doug tell us how to distinguish the two species by wing color (Red-legged is darker) and flight characteristics. Through the spotting scope we can see a few red legs and hope to get closer views during our island stay.
(Shari) Ryan tells us of the rarities seen on the island and knows that a Red-legged Kittiwake would be a lifer for many. So he takes us to a lake and sure enough there are a bunch of the birds, so he says. I try to decipher the differences between that sought-after bird and the others floating about the lake, but really can’t tell. Where are the red legs? Too far away or under the water. He assures me, we will get better looks.
(Bert) In our 7-min. drive to St. Paul, we pass snow drifts everywhere and, sometimes, 3 to 5-ft. snow-plowed banks along the gravel road. A few puddles of water are open in the iced-over lakes and even Salt Lake is mostly frozen over. Doug tells us this winter brought the most snow to the island in over 60 years. On a rooftop in St. Paul we see our first Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. It is surprisingly large compared to other times I have seen this snow-loving species and I am told it is an endemic subspecies found only on The Pribilofs. We also see our first Arctic Foxes and I am anxious to photograph these two bedraggled specimens–they are shedding their winter coats–as I am not sure how often I will get the chance.
(Shari) At an overview of the town, we see our first Arctic Fox. It is a Pribilof variety and is not white, but quite dark. It seems to be chunkier than a regular fox and has a bear like face. It is quite cute and very tame. The two we see now seem to follow any person coming out of the Trident Seafood processing plant. Two ships are docked alongside the plant, offloading crab destined for the Lower 48. One of the ships is one seen on the TV show “The deadliest catch.” Crab season normally ends in three days, but because of prolonged ice conditions the season has been extended and the plant is now processing about 500,000 pounds per day. You’d think they’d serve us crab for dinner. Our next stop is for Horned and Tufted Puffins, Thick-billed and Common Murres. Plus, again we see Arctic Foxes. I’d rather we see the foxes but Doug says, we will see lots of foxes and maybe not the sought-after birds. Next we go in search of a Hawfinch and, wow, we find one. This is about the time I tell Bob that I am enjoying this but he should not tell Bert. We had seen Rosy-Finch earlier.
(Bert) We drive toward the southernmost point of the island to find a Hawfinch that had been seen there recently. Just as we arrive at the hillside the Hawfinch flies overhead and lands on rock outcroppings at the top. Although distant, we can see the colorful features of this Eurasian species that is casual (a few prior sightings, but not every year) to the islands.
(Shari) By now I am famished and cold. Did I mention that with the wind conditions, it is about 25 degrees? It is also drizzling. So I am happy to hear that we are going to dinner. We go up the outside metal steps to the second floor of the seafood plant and into their cafeteria. This is where we will be taking all of our meals. The plant is located in town at the harbor, but four miles from the airport and, of course then, our hotel. The meal is plentiful and the menu includes fried chicken, mashed potatoes, rice, mixed veggies, halibut soup, rolls, salad bar, and sundry desserts to choose from. We can eat as much of anything that we want as it is serve-yourself.
(Bert) After dinner, Shari asks to be dropped off at the hotel before we go on evening birding. Thanks to her request we head in a different direction than planned and we have the very good fortune of seeing a Tundra Bean Goose on a small pond near the hotel. Somewhat resembling a Greater White-fronted Goose, it is my first life bird of our Alaska trip.
(Shari) As always happens after I eat, I get sleepy, so decide I have had enough birding for today. As we head to the hotel to drop me off, Ryan stops the van and excitedly announces a Tundra Bean Goose. Of course, everyone wants to see it, including myself. It almost looks like a decoy but finally I see it move. I get to look at it through the scope and can see the orange on its bill. So everyone is grateful that I wanted to go back to the hotel as the group was going to search for that bird someplace else. When I get to our room, I find it very cold. No one is around to ask for more heat, so I go to the laundry room and grab two extra blankets. I keep on my socks and put a sweatshirt over my flannel pajamas. By the time Bert comes back, the bed is nice and warm, under the covers at least.
(Bert) Out the hotel door at 6:20 AM–an amazing accomplishment since my alarm did not sound until 6:05–it doesn’t take a weatherman to tell us it is cold. Our forecast is freezing temperatures made more unbearable by 30 mph winds. It seems even colder, though I remain comfortably warm beneath six layers of clothes. Actually, to be more explicit, I am wearing 22 pieces of clothing, three layers on my head including a ski mask, six layers above the belt plus a woolen scarf, four layers below the belt, three layers on my feet including high-top waterproof Neos overshoes. I also am wearing an insulated leather ski glove on my left hand and an Australian possum and Angora wool glove–woven in New Zealand–on my right, with fingertips cut off. The only part of me that gets cold is my exposed right fingertip, the trigger finger for taking photos and making camera adjustments, so I keep that hand in a pocket when not active.
After a hearty and filling breakfast, we head to East Landing and the factory seafood effluent dump into the Bering Sea. Here flocks of hundreds of Least Auklets swarm like black flies, swirling in the air and periodically alighting on the black volcanic boulders edging the sea. They have no concern for my presence and allow remarkably close approach, much appreciated for photography. I remember seeing thousands of these chubby 6-in. alcids at Gambell, but there we always saw them distantly at sea or even more distantly on high cliffs, so I never got good photos. How different here!
(Shari) I have my reputation to maintain, you know, and I had better watch my p’s and q’s or I will be dethroned from the being the Queen of the SOBs. (See the note below if you do not know what SOB means). This morning I am dancing up and down with the rest of the group at the sight of the Least Auklet. This little bird comes early to its nesting site and sits on the snow waiting for it to melt before starting to build a bedroom for her little chicks. Amazing! Next I get excited about a Red-faced Cormorant, and then by a Rock Sandpiper. The sandpiper is a lifer for most of the group and then it becomes the day’s trash bird. We find so many of them all day long that we don’t even stop to look at them or even call them out anymore. I could go on and on about the birds we saw today, but I am sure Bert will tell you readers and, anyway, you might think I have become a birder, instead of a SOB: spouse of birder. I still get thrilled seeing all the Arctic Foxes and would like our guide to stop at every one for pictures. They all have a different fur color varying from white to brown to gray: cute, small cat-like creatures with a tail as big as their body. We are fortunate to be here so early in the season, as we are allowed to travel the roads along the Northern Fur Seal nesting areas. June 1, these roads will be closed but now we can not only travel along the road, but also get out of the van for a closer look. We see a lot of fur seals, which are bigger, clumsier, and furrier than a regular seal. That is way too cool!
(Bert) We drive the road toward Southwest Point, stopping at the Zapadni rookery to watch Northern Fur Seals very close to our vehicle. These are very large, almost like sea lions, with deeply matted black fur. Around the neck of the males the white guard hairs stick out like a necklace or scarf, and protruding from each side of its nostrils are a dozen white mustache strands, some nearly a foot long.
At sea, we see a few Black Guillemots. Normally considered an Atlantic species, with Pigeon Guillemot being the Pacific equivalent, here we are watching the Arctic subspecies of Black Guillemot. We also see Wandering Tattler on the beach and more alcid species in the cliffs and sea, but I’ll write about the alcids later, because I am more excited about the life bird I see now. Perched atop a huge black boulder at the edge of the sea is an Emperor Goose. With bright orange legs and a body like a white-fronted goose, its most striking feature is its all-white head offset by a pink bill. Wow!
We have been traveling now through much varied landscape. Unless you count the mature willow trees which max out at 4 in. in height, everything we see on the island is treeless. The “soil”, if exposed, is black volcanic sand, but most of the terrain is covered by a tundra-like dense mat of bend-over grass stalks, still brown from last year and much like a beaten-down hayfield. Generously interspersed with the grass are the dead stalks of wild celery that top off with umbels which contained the seeds. Any new growth is just barely emerging from the ground and, mostly, it is purplish green wild celery. The volcanic sand has blown with the strong winds and formed countless dunes as far as the eye can see, making the terrain hilly throughout and quite varied. Some hills rise to become small mountains. Snow drifts fill the less exposed areas. Near the shoreline are black rocks and boulders, not yet pulverized to gravel and sand. Tall cliffs of volcanic rock vault from the sea and these are the nesting sites for the auklets (Least, Parakeet, Crested), the murres (Thick-billed, Common), the puffins (Tufted, Horned), the cormorants (Pelagic, Red-faced), and the kittiwakes (Black-legged, Red-legged). Multiple ponds and lakes fill the low spots in the hilly sand dunes and most of these are frozen over, although the ice is melting and producing ice islands surrounded by icy water. Here we find the ducks, mostly Northern Pintails, Long-tailed Ducks, and Green-winged Teals. Our last birds of the day are a pair of Eurasian Wigeons on Pumphouse Lake.
(Shari) About mid-morning, I see the sun try to peak out from under the foggy cloud layer for 10 sec. and ask Bob if we can count today as a sunny day. He tells me an emphatic “no.” We have been battling 30 mph blasts with 30ish temperatures. Needless to say, my five layers on top and three layers on the bottom are welcomed. I also have one of those chemical hand warmers that I change from mitten to mitten to keep my fingers warm. Since the heater is turned off in the van so the windows will not steam up, I welcome all my clothes. After lunch, I revert back to being an SOB and stay in the van waiting for my personal guide (Bert) to call me out if he sees anything I might like. I think I only go out once. The others brave the wind and I mean wind–it is a wonder little Pat is not blown off her feet–and search for this bird or that. I figure no bird in his right mind will be out in such weather and I am more or less right. I wonder how people can stand to live here day in and day out. The landscape even looks desolate. After dinner, the group joins me and no one goes out birding, including Bert and Diane. I think our guide is disappointed.
(Bert) Why do you suppose that today is the day that the sun does not set on St. Paul Island, yet neither is today the spring equinox nor are The Pribilofs above the Arctic Circle? I’ll give the answer later in this journal.
Arctic Foxes, this time four of them, greet us when we arrive at the crab processing plant for breakfast. Two are dark chocolate, one is blond, and another is white. Generally, the subspecies of The Pribilofs is very dark, much like the summer blue coat of Arctic Foxes in the interior northern mainland. Unlike the mainland, the foxes on The Pribilofs have no predators and thus wearing white fur in snow-covered winter and dark fur in green-covered summer is no biological advantage. Through time, the island foxes evolved to wear the same color year-round. However, a few of them seem to be genetic throwbacks to lighter coloring.
At breakfast I mention to Ryan that we have not yet seen Ancient Murrelets and maybe we should search the harbor waters for them. That is what we do, and remarkably (since it is rare) within minutes Ryan has two distant murrelets in his spotting scope. As we keep track of their dives they get closer and closer to the dock, giving us a good view of these small alcids.
Rising across the harbor waters is a sunrise, a rare treat here where overcast skies are the norm. Although the forecast is for mid-30s temperature and 20 mph winds, the day progresses into much better weather with very light winds and warm enough for me to shed a layer of clothes and still feel too hot. Clear skies except for the distant horizon and bright 8 AM sunlight provides excellent lighting for my photos. We start at the cliffs at East Landing where I can get amazingly close to the Parakeet Auklets and Crested Auklets perched on the cliffs. Most of these auklets are paired and are probably sitting at the site where they will be building their nests. Excitedly, Diane exclaims that she sees a Pacific Wren. Earlier, Ryan and I had been talking about the wren and the possibility that it had become extinct because of the severe winters. None had been seen last year and, so far, none this season. We lose track of the wren and then it reappears at the next prominence and it is singing its heart out, perhaps trying to attract a mate. This endemic subspecies is noticeably larger than those on the mainland. In fact, this subspecies is the largest of the smallest North American wrens.
We move to the southern point of the island and form a broad line as we walk across the grassy coastal stretch between the Stellar Sea Lion rookery and rock outcroppings of hillsides. Our hope is to push up a vagrant bird that may have arrived recently. We succeed in finding a Red Phalarope that surprisingly has no fear of us. While I stand in place, the phalarope walks closer and closer, intent on feeding on whatever it is finding in the grass. When I have had my fill of photographing, I pull a plastic bag from my pocket and show Ryan the dead baby fox I found while walking. About 4 in. long, with closed eyes, and as helpless looking as a newborn domestic rabbit, the freezing temperatures have kept it well preserved. Brian will transfer it to scientists for a museum specimen.
(Shari) This morning, after breakfast, I choose not to go birding with the group. Instead, I take a nice hot shower, wash some clothes in the laundry, write a journal entry, read some of Sara Palin’s book “Going Rogue”, and nap a bit. After lunch I join the group and of all things, this is the day they are taking the “35 minute” walk up a steady incline. The day is sunny, if not brisk with only 15 mph winds. The sun makes the water sparkle and hopefully help the vegetation turn green. The island is now all brown and without a tree in sight; it looks desolate even on this nice sunny day. We notice the fur seals seem to like the sun, as many are lying on the beach sunning themselves. Sometimes one or two will look up at us, but mostly they just go on lying there. I get a good view of two reindeer still with their white fur from the winter.
(Bert) The day is filled with exciting observations: watching the display flights of Rock Sandpipers and Lapland Longspurs, discovering two reindeer with huge racks, seeing a Snow Bunting feeding near three dozen fur seals, and adding more species to our island list. I am fascinated with the Green-winged Teals, as we are only seeing the Eurasian subspecies or intergrades. The American form has a white vertical line separating its breast and belly, while the Eurasian form has a white horizontal line separating its back and flanks. The Eurasian form also has additional white feather lines on its head. We see no true American forms and most are Eurasians. I stop to photograph one that shows both white lines and another that has neither line.
On the first two days on St. Paul Island we avoided the long hike to the peaks at Northeast Point. Today the weather is so pleasant that we decide to make the hike, reportedly 35 min. one way. It may be 35 min. for good hikers half our age, intent on walking and not studying birds, but for us–and especially those of us wearing 20 lb. of extra clothing–it is a taxing uphill hike. Three-fourths of the way up, I leave Shari and continue trailing the others. I make the final assault up a very steep slope to where Ryan has already set up his scope and focused on nesting birds visible just over the edge of the high cliffs. On the grassy slope, I lay flat on my stomach and peer over the edge of the 150-ft. cliff, looking toward a curvature that offers a close view of the steep vertical edge and the crevices and tiny outcroppings that give purchase to seabirds. Here Black-legged Kittiwakes are sitting on nests, intermingled with a few Red-legged Kittiwakes. One Red-legged stands on her nest, giving us an excellent close view of the crimson legs. When they shift in their nests, I can make out a few other pairs of Red-leggeds. Later, on the return hike–much easier downhill and with the wind at my back–I stop to photograph a Red-legged Kittiwake scooping up mud in its beak, a process it repeats five or six times until it accumulates a big chuck of mud before it flies off to its nest.
(Shari) We get to the farthest northeast point and start our walk. Along the walk I find some reindeer horns and then some more and then some more. Reindeer scat is all along the path. This must be a good place for them. I get the bright idea to take some horns back to display next to our stuffed ptarmigan at home and also to give to my grandson. So we set the horns in the path to remind ourselves to take them back with us on the way down. I walk for over an hour and decide I have had enough. It looks like I would have a lot to go yet (later Bert tells me I made it three-fourths of the way but the way got steeper). I sit on a hump of ground with my back to the wind and wait about 20 min. I look for the rest of the group but they must have taken a turn because I cannot see them. I head down along the path, picking up the antlers on my way. I hope Bert brings the ones Bob set aside for me as they were a full rack. I get all the way back to the van and still cannot see the group. After about 15 min. I see them as little specks way up on top. I have another 45 min. to wait.
(Bert) On the return trip to St. Paul, we stop for geese near Antone Lake, seeing five Cackling Geese flying with a Snow Goose and then on the lake, a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese. Later this evening, when the others have retreated to the hotel, Ryan, Diane and I go out again. We find the geese again, now browsing in grasslands farther northeast near Webster House, plus a couple more White-fronted Geese, as well as our first Ruddy Turnstone of the island at Novostashna Ponds.
(Shari) By now it is dinner time and we eat a hearty meal. We always have a huge salad bar along with two or three choices of meat and starch, a vegetable, and a soup. Tonight I have a braised chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a spinach salad topped off with cherry pie and whipped cream. Bert and Diane go out with Ryan to look for the White-tailed Eagle, seen two days before our arrival on the island, while the rest of us go back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow.
(Bert) We quit birding about 9 PM while the sun is still high in the sky. It will not set today. Last night it set at 11:59 PM, but the next sunset is at 12:01 AM tomorrow, thus no sunset on May 29.
(Bert) The forecast is for temperatures in the mid-30s, light 10-15 mph winds, overcast skies, and no rain. We start the day in light fog that lifts by mid-morning.
We again see Cackling Geese at Novastashna Ponds. These are the Aleutian form (leucopareia) that breeds on the western Aleutian chain and is different from the smallest form (minima) that we have been seeing at Potters Marsh and Turnagain Arm near Anchorage. This Aleutian form has a prominent white neck ring. I wish I could photograph it, but they remain too far away.
Beside the road I spot a godwit and first think it is Hudsonian, but Doug corrects me and says it is a Bar-tailed Godwit. I am surprised because it is so brightly rufous, like the Hudsonian, and quite unlike the huge flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits we watched in New Zealand. These birds have a remarkable migration route, traveling non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand in fall, an 8000-mi. flight made somewhat easier with the prevailing winds. In the spring, however, the winds would make the overseas flight taxing, so they return along the Asian coast with a refueling stop in the Sea of China.
(Shari) It’s our last day of birding before we board our little plane back to Anchorage. I am amazed that new birds are still showing up. Today we saw a bunch of different geese. Our guide and the ticket agents successfully get us on an earlier flight, though Bert looks disappointed. He does not get the opportunity to go the northwest road once again to look for another species of feathers that may have shown up. For my part, I am happy we get back at a reasonable hour and in the daylight.
(Bert) A noteworthy gap in the birds we are seeing is the near absence of shorebirds. Except for Semipalmated Plovers, Rock Sandpipers, and Red-necked Phalaropes, almost no others have shown up as yet. Now we add a single Pacific Golden Plover near Webster Lake and soon thereafter a single Dunlin. A find that excites me more is a mixed flock of one Common Redpoll and two Hoary Redpolls that provides a rare opportunity to compare the two quite similar species.
We visit more cliff and beach side rookeries and I never tire of seeing so many auklets so close up. By morning’s end, we must have seen many thousands of Least Auklets. At Icehouse Pond we see a pair of American Wigeons, our twelfth duck species on the island. And at Big Zapadni Rookery we again see the Emperor Goose. This time Shari is with us to see it too, an exciting addition to her list as my view two days ago was a lifetime sighting. Topping off our list of geese, at noon we see a Black Brant, which brings our goose list on the island to a remarkable six species.
(Shari) We see the same two reindeer we saw yesterday. I only get out of the van when there is a possibility of seeing something new. At one point Diane says they have a Yellow-billed Loon in the scope. I get out and find, the yellow bill is now a long bill and the loon is now a dowitcher. Back in the van I go, out of the wind and cold. We eat yet another hearty lunch at the cafeteria and I see Pat give one of the workers a hug. She cleaned our table every day and was very friendly.
(Bert) We stop at the hotel/airport building and find out that a previously canceled flight has been rescheduled and has vacancies. Although I would just as soon bird until midnight tonight, the others are less enthused about our originally-scheduled arrival in Anchorage in the wee hours of tomorrow, so we change our reservations. We have enough time to check our bags and go out for a bit more birding. Our last addition to our St. Paul Island list is a Greater Yellowlegs I spot at Pumphouse Lake. Although common on the mainland, this yellowlegs is only casual to The Pribilof Islands. Our flight leaves at 3:55 PM.
(Shari) Once more time we go out the same road, before we return to the airport and wait for our flight. We are allowed to take our antlers as baggage and I find a big box in the lounge closet to put them in. We tape cardboard over the tips and off they go into the plane’s baggage compartment. I have no idea where they will go in our puptent but Bert is mumbling something about tying them onto the roof. We share the plane with only seven or eight others and the flight is a smooth one, arriving at 6:45 PM. It will be good to have a beer and watch TV tonight.
(Bert) I’ve been reviewing my St. Paul Island sightings and see that we ended with 55 species in a period of three full days. I believe that is a respectable total for this remote windborne island. If we had substantial winds blowing from Asia, we might have gotten a few more of those species, but getting Tundra Bean Goose, Emperor Goose, Red-legged Kittiwake, and Hawfinch is outstanding. Our group noticed that I was regularly writing into my notebook whenever I saw an Arctic Fox and Pat wanted to know the total. I just added them up and it comes to 48 times we viewed a fox.
(Bert) Before we left The Pribilofs, Diane told us that a Great Egret–a rare bird for Alaska–had been reported on the Internet and she intended to see it yet that night before last, after our plane arrived. Shari noticed on her iPod that it still was being seen yesterday, so this morning we head to Turnagain Arm to see if I can find it. We pass Girdwood and stop at 20 Mile River. No sign of the egret. Turnagain Arm is at low tide and the Hooligans are running. A couple dozen fishermen–actually families including parents and kids–are dipping big nets with long handles over the side of the muddy river. They pass the net forward, against the current, staying mostly toward the river bottom, and then lift up to see their catch. About every other pass brings up a one or two of these 6 in. silvery fish and, sometimes they get four to six hooligans. Shari asks what they will do with them. Some will use them for bait, others will smoke them, still others fry them, and yet others will clean them and freeze them for winter meals.
I check a few nearby places for the egret, including a shallow pond where dozens of Mew Gulls are nesting. No egret! We start our return and I count a dozen Bald Eagles resting on the mud beside the river, perhaps trying to catch their own hooligans. I again mark the progress of spring. At St. Paul Island we relapsed to winter, but now back on the mainland I see that the alders have leafed out and are decorated with numerous 2-in. catkins, hanging like yellow-green tinsel from the branches. The youngest of the cottonwoods have unfurled sticky leaves. Touching them is like holding the hands of a 3-year-old who has been eating a honey-coated piece of bread. While Shari is hunting a geocache, I notice the first lupines of the season and at another geocache stop along Turnagain Arm, blankets of Forget-me-nots are in full bloom. It is the state flower of Alaska. Coincidentally, at this stop we also witness the bore tide, today just a ripple marking the incoming tide.
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