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Remote, Yet Rewarding: St. Paul Island

by Tina Hay | September 29, 2017

Parakeet auklet © Tina HaySt. Paul Island is heaven for bird photography—if you can get there.

A tiny dot in the Bering Sea, part of Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, St. Paul is remote and isolated. Only one small airline serves it, with just three flights from Anchorage per week. And because of the fog that often envelops the island, there’s a higher-than-average chance of flight delays or cancellations. Still, photographers are drawn there: In the summer months, the island hosts large breeding colonies of puffins, auklets, kittiwakes, cormorants, and murres, among other seabirds. Adding to the appeal are several kinds of songbirds, including several subspecies found only on the island; about 400,000 northern fur seals; and a handful of blue fox, an endemic subspecies of Arctic fox.

Horned puffin © Tina Hay

Fur seal © Tina Hay

I went to St. Paul in July 2017 with 11 other photographers on a NatureScapes workshop led by Greg Downing and Alan Murphy. With the help of a St. Paul Island Tour bus and guide, we spent a week criss-crossing the island in search of its target species. At Reef Point we found parakeet and crested auklets perched on the cliffs and worked on flight shots of horned and tufted puffins, as well as common and thick-billed murres. At Zapadni Point we picked our way down a long stony beach in search of least auklets. In the meadows at Black Diamond Hill one morning, we got on our stomachs to photograph Pribilof rock sandpipers wandering among the tundra vegetation; the wild celery, lupine, and Arctic lousewort created a lovely backdrop of soft greens and purples. Even the fisherman’s dock near the seafood plant in town proved productive, offering chances to work on close-range flight shots of black- and red-legged kittiwakes. (Red-legged kittiwakes are a Bering Sea specialty: 95% of the world’s population is found there.)

Least auklet © Tina Hay

Pacific wren © Tina Hay

The weather on the Island can be a challenge; there were times when it was too foggy or rainy to be out shooting. But because of the longer summer days at Alaskan latitudes, you can often go out after dinner to shoot. One evening we drove to Southwest Point and strolled the High Bluffs Trail, working the edges of the cliff and photographing northern fulmars along with more puffins and auklets—some of them perched close enough to yield full-frame portraits.

Tufted puffin in flight © Tina Hay

Tufted puffin in flight over water © Tina Hay

Throughout the week we photographed other bird species as well: red-faced cormorants, gray-crowned rosy finches (a larger race than the ones found on the mainland), Pacific wrens, lapland longspurs, snow buntings, and a few ruddy turnstones. You could also venture down toward the beach and check out a huge rookery of northern fur seals from an elevated wooden viewing blind—but, for most of us, the birds were the stars. I was happiest when we’d spend hours just sitting near the cliff’s edge, watching the seabirds coming and going from the cliffs, and practicing our panning and shooting techniques on one puffin after another.

Parakeet auklet © Tina Hay

Like everyone who visits St. Paul, we stayed in the island’s only hotel, the King Eider Inn, which in reality is a dormitory-style wing of the small airport terminal. The rooms are basic but perfectly adequate. At one end of the hall are two restrooms, one for men and one for women, each with showers; at the other end is a small lounge and a kitchen where we’d hang out at night and look at the day’s photos on our laptops. The wi-fi was surprisingly reliable. We ate every meal in the only restaurant in town: the employees’ cafeteria at Trident Seafoods, where the food was a bit expensive ($50 a day) but quite good.

Horned puffin on cliff © Tina Hay

Tufted puffin © Tina Hay

Doing bird photography on the island isn’t an especially strenuous undertaking; you won’t have to endure killer hikes with challenging elevation gains. But you do need to be careful walking near the cliff edges, and the rocks at Zapadni Point can be tough to negotiate—they felt like a sprained ankle waiting to happen. You’ll want to take rain gear (we found rain pants and overshoes to be especially helpful). You’ll also need warm enough clothes, as the average high temperature in July is just 51 degrees, and we had several days that didn’t get out of the 40s. In terms of camera gear, bring your longest lens, and perhaps a macro for wildflower images. But be aware that PenAir has strict weight limits for both checked and carry-on bags—and, because its small propeller planes carry not only passengers but also groceries, U.S. mail, and other supplies to and from the island, your bags might not fly on the same plane that you do. Our checked bags arrived on St. Paul two days after we did, and a later group went even longer without their luggage. And when we left the island, it took an enormous amount of haggling to ensure that our gear would be on the same flight that we were.

Rock sandpiper © Tina Hay

In short: If you go to St. Paul, bring your most flexible travel attitude, and be prepared to improvise. In return, you’re likely to be rewarded with some very special images—ones that you won’t be able to create anywhere else.

Snow bunting © Tina Hay

About the Author

Tina Hay is editor of The Penn Stater magazine, the alumni magazine for the 176,000 members of the Penn State Alumni Association. She’s also an avid traveler and photographer; recently one of her images from Bhutan took Best in Show at Images 2016, a statewide competition in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. You can see some of her images at flickr.com/tinahay and visit her new blog at sites.psu.edu/tinahay. Follow her on Twitter @tinahay.

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