Magazine article Sunset

Birding in the Pribilofs.And Other Alaskan Adventures - from Anchorage Hikes to Seward Sea Life

Magazine article Sunset

Birding in the Pribilofs.And Other Alaskan Adventures - from Anchorage Hikes to Seward Sea Life

Article excerpt

The birders were all aflutter. The day before we flew into Alaska's Pribilof Islands from Anchorage, a peregrine-like falcon from Asia called a Eurasian hobby had flown in from the other direction. Or, more accurately, blown in - a strong wind apparently carried the bird off course, sending him halfway across the Bering Sea to these remote volcanic islands.

The falcon's surprise visit gave the birders a chance to check off an unlikely conquest on their life list. I have no life list. I was more interested in checking out the abstract composition of the huge stacks of crab traps where the bird was said to hang out.

So as my birding friends carefully scanned the stacks for the hobby, I took my camera and went off looking for good angles. And there, maybe 10 feet away, casually perched on a pair of traps, was a most handsome bird of prey that I assumed to be the aforementioned hobby.

I backed off a bit to give him space. He held still, rotating his head for a better look. We then regarded each other with great curiosity for a couple of minutes. He was, after all, my first hobby. I assume I was his first Jaffe.

Keeping one eye on the falcon, I slinked over to my camera-toting, scope-carrying, binoculars-burdened companions, all of whom were looking in the wrong direction. And in a voice that for some reason came out sounding like Joe Pesci in GoodFellas, I declared, "Hey, I think I gotchyer bird, he-ah."

Instantly they wheeled and spotted the hobby. With copious cooing and chirping, the birders zeroed in on the falcon through optics that Galileo would have killed for. A veritable squawkarazzi, these birders. But by now, like George Clooney on a bad hair day, the hobby had endured enough scrutiny: get blown hundreds of miles from home and now this. He took off, leaving the birders to marvel at their good fortune.

Intoned one, with a solemnity appropriate to the event, "There goes the rarest bird in North America, at least for today."

'At least technically," he also might have added.

The Pribilof Islands sit north of the Aleutian Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea, closer to Siberia than to Juneau, farther west than Hawaii, and just a shade to the east of New Zealand, give or take 100 [degrees] of latitude. Despite the remoteness of this location, or maybe because of it, the hobby found himself in some pretty impressive avian company. In fact, the islands are renowned as one of the top birding spots in the Northern Hemisphere, a haven for puffins, auklets, and rare red-legged kittiwakes, which zip in and out of their cliffs.

Birds are not the only inhabitants of the Pribilofs. Almost 1 million northern fur seals, about 80 percent of the world population, call these islands home during the summer in a belching, snorting, bellowing fandango that spreads from the black-sand beaches to the fringes of the islands' tundra.

It's the sort of place you don't expect to ever visit, outside the Discovery Channel or a gut-busting boat trip. But the Pribilof Islands are just 21/2 hours by air from Anchorage, belying their bad reputation for inaccessibility.

They also have a bad reputation when it comes to weather - the hobby, I suppose, was proof of that. But the flight to tiny St. Paul aboard a vintage Lockheed Electra turboprop proved to be quite comfortable. And while our guide, George Rukovishnikoff, a native Aleut and Pribilof resident for 58 of his 60 years, liked to make references to "the mighty Bering Sea," the ocean looked as placid as Walden Pond.

Still, plenty of evidence remained of what a harsh environment this can be. There is no shortage of rust on buildings and cars, and the wood-framed homes look as weathered as driftwood. House painting, it turns out, is tricky because it's tough to find a day when the wood is dry enough to paint. …

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