Surveying (or trying to survey) seabirds in the Chirikov Basin and the Bering Strait region in general can be an exercise in frustration – the winds whip up the seas too high, or the fog rolls in and you barely see beyond the ship’s bow, or the low midnight sun covers the sea ahead in glare. Nonetheless, it’s worth the effort, because nowhere else can you see these numbers of auklets - in three varieties - Least, Crested and Parakeet auklets. They like this area because of the shallow waters fed by the cold Anadyr Current, with its dense aggregations of copepods, their favorite zooplankton, which they scoop up underwater. Plus there are good numbers of fish-eating Horned and Tufted Puffins, Black Guillemots, Common and Thick-billed murres, even a few Pigeon Guillemots and Dovekies. Virtually the entire North Pacific alcid family breeds on the nearby islands and rocky capes. Later in summer they’ll be joined by cousins like Ancient Murrelet and Kittlitz’s Murrelet from southern Alaska, done with breeding and looking for hotspots of prey, along with Short-tailed Shearwaters, the really long distance migrants from Tasmania.
This year the number of birds on the water, at least the ubiquitous murres, seems to be low, and that is sobering given the reports of a seabird die off in the region. However, it is still early summer up here, and birds are spending more time at the colonies to guard nest sites, pair bond, and incubate eggs. So maybe it’s just a late year for the birds. We’ll be able to look at the numbers later and see how this year compares to past years, and determine if the birds have shifted foraging areas.
One amazing day made all the sloppy seas and foggy days worthwhile. We approached the Diomede Islands – the guardians of the Bering Strait – on a clear, calm June evening. As we got closer I could barely keep up with the entering the birds into my laptop, and finally had to give up. We were parked off the community on Little Diomede, the U.S. island so close to Russia’s Big Diomede, and surrounded by the summer activity of one of the largest seabird colonies in the world. As we slowly made our way north into the Chukchi Sea, I was awestruck by swarms of auklets around craggy summits, and scattered groups of all kinds of seabirds moving to and from the water. Everyone was coming and going with great intent – summer is short here.
Going past Little Diomede was a rare, wonderful experience I’ve been privileged to see several times, and every time I’m reminded what a gem this small island is, with one side facing the Bering and the other facing the Chukchi. It also sits at an important juncture geopolitically and for future increases in vessel traffic beyond research cruises – it will see more large vessels for tourism, business, energy extraction, and military exercises. I hope we can keep it safe, and appreciate it as much as those that call it home.