Sojourn in Sitka

natural history and music harmonize beautifully

In late June I went to Sitka with some friends, in time to catch the final performance of the Sitka Music Festival. The music was wonderful, as always, and I had a small bonus: the panoramic windows of Sitka’s Centennial Hall gave me a view of a parade of ravens, flying by ones and twos, all in the same direction—a visual treat to add to the musical one.

Another objective of the Sitka visit was going out the St Lazaria Island, which I hadn’t seen in many years. Getting there is always chancy, because the island is fully exposed to the wide Pacific and the waters can be forbidding. On this morning, however, the weather gods were smiling, and we had a good ride. On the way out, we found a ‘smack’ of moon jellies—there must have been millions of them. They are said to be short-lived, and males and females are separate individuals. They feed chiefly on zooplankton and size reportedly depends in part on how well fed they are. I found no information on why they aggregate in huge groups such as the one we saw; is it for reproductive purposes or for feeding or by happenstance?? Several deer foraged on the beaches, and we passed a big flotilla of rhinoceros auklets. A gang of male sea otters, and a separate group of females with pups, were wary of our presence, and no wonder–they are hunted very heavily.

Then we got to St Lazaria. Some humpback whales lazed along the outside of the island. I was intrigued by the number of sooty shearwaters floating and diving. They come to our summer to forage but return to the New Zealand area to nest in the austral summer. Although Arctic terns, which have the reverse pattern –they nest here but spend the austral summer near Antarctica, are said to hold the long-distance record for annual migration, the shearwaters (sooty as well as short-tailed) must be close rivals.

St Lazaria is a remnant of an ancient volcano (older than Mt Edgecombe on neighboring Kruzof Island). Basalt cliffs rear up out of the sea, making two summits connected by a lower, grassy saddle that can sometimes get pounded by high seas. Broken basalt columns make great nest ledges for several thousand common and thick-billed murres, whose constant conversation and squabbling create quite a din. Nesting on these tiny ledges is a risky business for an egg, which might roll off when jostled by a parent. But murre eggs, only one per nest and laid on bare rock, don’t have the conventional egg shape; instead, they are rather pointed at one end, so they tend to roll in a circle instead of off the ledge as an ordinary egg would do.

Pelagic cormorants nest there too, using somewhat larger ledges, and each pair tends several eggs. Tufted puffins nest at the tops of cliffs, where accumulated soil allows them to dig their burrows. They were feeding chicks when we were there but were distinctly shy about returning to their burrows when our boat was nearby. There were lots of gulls nesting in the grassy area; I saw glaucous-winged gulls but, sorry to say, I did not bother to see if any other kinds of gulls were there. There was too much else to see! Added to the mixed community of nesters were some pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers; up in the shrubbery on top of the summits I heard song sparrows and maybe a fox sparrow. Peregrine falcons nest there every year—with dinner all around them (!)—and had chicks out of the nest already.

What we did NOT see were the many tens of thousands—one estimate says a quarter of a million– of storm petrels that nest in burrows in the soil atop the summits. They are the focus of long-term research, monitoring the population and nesting success. They are seldom seen on the island in the daytime because they forage all day at sea and return to their nests only when it is dark. Parents feed their single chick on plankton and stomach oil (partly digested plankton, a concentrated pabulum!) for about two months. Mated pairs are reported to stay together for many years, with little straying (unlike many other supposedly monogamous birds).

This brief experience brought back strong memories of a similar site (Puñihuil) near the island of Chiloé in southern Chile, where I studied birds in the south temperate rainforest for many years. The sea stacks there were held the nesting burrows of two kinds of penguin, and ledges for various gulls and some very classy cormorants, and we could see steamer ducks and the local ‘sea otter’ (really a converted river otter). Another spectacular wildlife show!