Too harsh for humans, perfect for birds

By Mark Brazil | Apr 19, 2000

Think of the automobile and which country comes to mind first? America, of course.

Strange then, to find that there is one part of that country that officially lists its only mode of land transport as “walking.” If you have ever seen the place (which is, I admit, extremely unlikely) you’ll know why.

The tiny community of Diomede (population 172) looms out of the vaporous mist that cloaks the Bering Sea. This place, where the sea beats against this tiny rocky crag in the Bering Straits, has no space for a road, not even for a proper track. The trails connecting the ramshackle houses of the village are more like a series of stepping stones than paths. Just across the water lies another, slightly larger, even more remote island — Big Diomede, the final outpost of Russia.

The mist creeps in everywhere. The stones appear damp, the houses in Diomede are mildewed, and I can’t imagine anywhere worse to stay on earth.

Unless, of course, one is a seabird biologist. Then it is a kind of heaven.

These tiny islands were named in 1728 by Vitus Bering, after whom the straits and the sea themselves were named. He honored Saint Diomede in naming them, but who Saint Diomede was remains a mystery to me. Even my favorite standby, the Encyclopedia Britannica, is silent on this question.

The current, unsaintly settlement of Diomede is situated at 65 degrees 47 minutes north, 169 degrees 00 minutes west. This cramped collection of huts and houses that form the village of Diomede, known as Inalik to the Ingalikmiut Eskimos, began life at some unknown point in the past as a spring hunting site. The islands lie on the migration routes of the bowhead whale, and the islands formed a base for hunting it.

Today the tiny community there is classified as subsistence. My two visits there, and several visits to other northern communities of the region have, however, left me cynical about such classifications; I would term them predatory.

During the Iron Curtain era, Russian Big Diomede, or Ostrov Ratmanova, just 4 km away across the invisible international boundary and dateline, became a military outpost.

Now it is an outpost of some marvelous wildlife populations. There are Pacific walrus to be found here, hauled out on remote rocky beaches, for those that brave the crossing of the hidden borders. Whales pass by still, though if unlucky they may be greeted by a thrown harpoon.

This pair of steeply sloping granitic islands has little soil. They give up little dwelling space for human settlement, and none at all for agriculture. Winter’s darkness, bleakness and freezing temperatures are enough to drive most life away; only polar bears, arctic foxes and a few humans linger.

Yet for other inhabitants the 45-degree or steeper slopes provide the perfect real estate. For them, political boundaries and different time zones are meaningless. They are drawn here by their instincts to breed, and by the necessity to do so on land.

The fog-shrouded islands are the vernal breeding grounds of literally millions of plankton-feeding seabirds: crested, parakeet and least auklets. In the vicinity of the islands, the cold Bering Strait currents bring a rich harvest of plankton close enough to the surface for small diving seabirds to be able to sustain themselves.

Most of their lives are spent far out at sea. There is no shortage of food for these oceanic birds; it is the scarcity of breeding sites that forces them into massive summer concentrations. Were they to nest in the open, as many seabirds do elsewhere, they would be at the mercy of arctic foxes. Here, though, the crumbling cliffs are sloped with screes and talus, and among those jumbled piles of rocks there are crevices galore where they are safe and can breed in peace.

Islands are few in the latitudes they prefer, and fewer islands still provide the right conditions of stable rock slopes. Consequently the birds crowd into the few suitable places.

To watch them departing from their nesting sites is like watching a swarm of bees leaving a hive. Crooning calls precede their appearance from the holes and crevices, and like a stage-show cast appearing from behind a curtain, they materialize suddenly on top of rocks on the nesting slopes. More and more appear, as if conjured from the rocks by magic; then at some secret signal they all take off, whirring out to sea like airborne clockwork toys. Against a misty gray sky, they appear all black as they stream out to feed.

Somewhere among the rocks are their eggs or chicks, but so well hidden that even dedicated researchers are unable to find their nests.

Their tiny wings are an evolutionary compromise between efficiency in the air and efficiency under water. Starling-sized, with stubby bills, just how do they catch their prey? For my part, if I had to feed on plankton I would want a fine mesh net, but for the auklets agility under water and a stubby beak must suffice. Perhaps they chase down larger planktonic creatures, rather than sieving them from the water as larger plankton-feeders do.

Where the sea breaks on the islands and shores of the Bering Straits, life seems abundant. The air around the islands is filled with birds and the sea teems with food to support them.

Nevertheless, as winter approaches, they abandon their island breeding grounds and these far northern seas, and head south. They follow the cold current, which flows south from the Arctic down the west side of the Pacific, and some even reach Japan’s northern waters.