With a flash of black wingtips against its spotless white body, my first-ever McKay’s Bunting flies along the beach even before our boat touches land. This Alaskan bunting is a grail-bird species seen by very few birders, or even ornithologists. That’s because in visiting this bunting’s island, we’re venturing to a place very few people have ever been. The remoteness of its only breeding place has made McKay’s Bunting the least-studied bird species endemic to North America. Many enigmas surround this little-known bird and its fog-shrouded homeland, St. Matthew Island, which rises out of the Bering Sea more than 200 miles off the northwest coast of mainland Alaska. The Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library houses 380,000 audio recordings of 8,700 species of birds, but there was no recording of a McKay Bunting’s mating song—until our team’s visit in the early summer of 2018.
Our mission is to fill gaps in knowledge about the biology of St. Matthew and its animals. Our Zodiac is piled high with waterproofed bags of research and film gear as it delivers two of us from Cornell University—myself, a professor of ornithology, and Andy Johnson, a filmmaker and producer from the Cornell Lab’s conservation media department—to join three wildlife biologists already camped on the island to conduct bird surveys. We will work together as one team in the coming weeks to study and document the spectacular wildlife of this isolated wilderness. While our main focus is on the breeding ecology of McKay’s Buntings, a close second among our scientific targets is the distinctive race of the Rock Sandpiper—a subspecies, by current classification—that breeds only here and on the Pribilof Islands to the south. And in every spare moment we will study the many other birds and special creatures that inhabit this rarely visited isle.
Follow along on the 2018 expedition to St. Matthew Island with photographer/videographer Andy Johnson.
Our voyage here took three days, by plane and boat. After a PenAir flight from Anchorage to the far-flung Pribilof island of St. Paul—itself famous for its rich seabird and fur seal colonies and beloved by intrepid birders for attracting serendipitous avian vagrants from Asia—we reached the end of the commercial travel industry’s reach into the Bering Sea. From here Andy and I relied on the support of a large team from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, including the intrepid crew of its research vessel the R/V Tiglax, which we boarded for a 30-hour ride into a region of the northern Pacific Ocean that’s notorious for its storms. We expected a churning, fog-enshrouded roller-coaster ride, but instead we are happily surprised by calming seas and clearing skies as we approach St. Matthew and its two smaller satellite islands, Pinnacle and Hall.
Andy and I are not the first Cornellians to venture here. Back in 1899, Louis Agassiz Fuertes (the famous bird artist and naturalist) partnered with his good friend Dr. Arthur Allen (founder of the Cornell Lab) to visit St. Matthew as part of a scientific voyage organized by Edward Harriman, a Gilded Age railroad baron for whom exploration was a hobby and a passion. Some of the most prominent field biologists and conservationists of that era, including John Muir and George Bird Grinnell, were also on board the Harriman Expedition. Their collective observations of the seabirds nesting on St. Matthew helped motivate its preservation, and in 1909 this remote little archipelago was set aside as one of the very first federal Bird Reservations, a precursor to its current status as a wilderness unit within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Author Irby Lovette and USGS biologist Stephanie Walden ferry gear from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge’s research vessel R/V Tiglax to their remote research encampment on St. Matthew Island, 200 miles off the coast of mainland Alaska.
As the Tiglax (pronounced TEK-LAH, the Aleut word for “eagle”) turns to coast along St. Matthew toward our drop point, we gain an expansive view of the island’s green tundra valleys, brilliant hillside snowfields, eroding cliff faces, and corrugated mountains. St. Matthew is narrow, about 20 miles long on its north-to-south axis but only three to five miles wide. It is bookended by higher mountains on both headlands, while the intervening coastlines alternate between tall cliffs and sandy beaches backed by shallow lagoons.
Fuertes himself spent only one day on land admiring the McKay’s Buntings, whose nesting grounds had been discovered a few years previously. Fuertes was a skilled field scientist as well as an artist; our vertebrate museum at Cornell still boasts a handful of McKay’s Bunting study skins that he prepared during that visit. Yet Fuertes’s journal notes from that day telegraph his appreciation for the buntings as living creatures. He repeatedly refers to them by their avian nickname of “snowflakes,” alluding both to their nearly all-white plumage and to the breeding display of the males, which fly up into the air and then sing as they drift slowly to the ground with their white-and-black wings held outstretched in a rigid V-shape.
In the coming weeks we will join Fuertes in the rarified club of the very few ornithologists to have witnessed this bunting’s snowflake display.
Rendezvous on St. Matthew Island
As the Tiglax disappears around the northern St. Matthew headland, we know it will be a month before the boat returns to retrieve us. We are on our own in the most remote place within any of the 50 United States.
The “we” includes not just Andy and me, but three wildlife biologists–Rachel Richardson from the United States Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, and Bryce Robinson and Stephanie Walden, volunteers for the USFWS Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. As our Zodiac makes it through the surf line, they all wear big smiles as they wade over to help us move our gear to the dry part of the beach. They arrived on St. Matthew the previous week to begin their work by running bird surveys, hiking back and forth across the entire island, carefully documenting every bunting and sandpiper that they encountered.
Over the following month, these three scientists will continue to make the most of their time on the island.
“Other people, they don’t come here,” Richardson tells us. “We are taking advantage of the opportunity to be out here collecting these data now, because it’s unknown when the next expedition will be, when the next people will even set foot on this island.”
It’s a grueling routine, but it’s important, she says.