by John C. LeVine
My wife, Irma, and I became birders in July, 1989 on St. Paul, Alaska.
The previous September, we and another couple took an Alaskan cruise. The only birds we saw (consciously) were the Bald Eagles in Skagway and Juneau. We paid attention to them only because they were Bald Eagles and our national symbol. The only other bird that we paid any attention to was the Puffins we found in all of the gift shops. You know the "No Puffin" signs, figurines, etc. Well, I fell in love with Alaska and the puffin. Seeing the coast of Alaska was not enough for me, I had to see more of Alaska!
The drive was so great that I planned a land trip for the following summer. As part of this planning, being determined to see a real live puffin, I found out that one can see them by traveling by ferry or fishing boats around the Keni peninsula or one could go to St., Paul Island where they nest. Wanting a sure thing, I booked us into the King Eider Hotel for a week. The fact that the brochure told of being able to see Arctic Foxes and a million Northern Fur Seals also had a lot to do with my selection of St. Paul. I forget my logic for picking the longest stay and not one of the shorter 3 or 5 days stays.
Irma and I were the only non-birders getting off the plane in St. Paul. There were nine us arriving that day. Already on the island was a family of three from England, a English or history professor, his wife and daughter. They apparently were spending the summer in Alaska. They had been on St. Paul already for two or three weeks, had been in Barrows for another two or three weeks, and I think there next stop was around Nome. From what I remember, he had been birding all his life and was into some very esoteric listing: Birds seen on the nest, birds with young, and maybe meant more as a joke, copulating birds. We were joined on the island by the wild-life and bird photographer Tim Fitzharris. One of his books is "American Birds," a general interest book, with some very good pictures in it.
In the group who landed with us was a couple from, I believe, Seattle, WA.(Gordie (Gordon) and Carolyn) who had birded the world and they became our de facto group leaders knowing more than any of the other birders in our group and everything more than Irma and me. It did not take Irma and me long before we got caught up in the excitement when a birder in the group saw a new lifer. Of course, for us, every bird was a lifer.
Gordie or Carolyn would take the time to explain to us why obviously (to us) the same black and white birds were called Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres. Pointing out what made a Northern Fulmar a Fulmar and not a "sea gull" And why that "sea gull" was a Glaucous-winged Gull. My wife and I owe much of our enjoyment of birding to Gordie and Carolyn and if you are a subscriber, please contact us by e-mail, so we can properly thank you. If anyone knows this husband and wife team and how to contact them, please e-mail me.
If you have any love of Nature in your soul, it would be hard not to become a birder after experiencing the natural wonder of 000's of birds flying to and fro from the cliffs on St. Paul. Watching the crazy rapid wing beats of a puffin flying: A football with wings. The majestic, clean beauty of the Red-legged Kittiwake....and Black. Seeing the clownish looking Parakeet Auklets on the rocks.
But probably the bird that made me a confirmed birder is the Lapland Longspur: The experience of seeing a Lapland Longspur on a stem singing his heart out....the beauty of the bird and the song cannot be imagined. None of the recordings I have listened to have reproduced the beauty of the song that we listened to there on St. Paul. It is such a part of my birding experience that I am feeling all the emotions now, that I felt when I first experienced it.
We left St.. Paul with the following Life List:
Steller's Eider (female)
Rock Sandpiper (Leader Bird)
Snow Bunting (male)
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch
Talk about starting a life list.
On our way home, we stopped by Potter's Marsh, near Anchorage and picked up a Red-necked Grebe and a Arctic Tern. There were many others shorebirds there, but we were too new at birding to even begin to guess what we were seeing.
Irma and I hope to get back to Alaska, but there seems to be so many other Birding "Mecca's" that we have to make pilgrimage to first and there is sooooooo little time and a few more bucks in our pockets would help, too.
John C. LeVine