Archive for September 2009

Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

September 9, 2009

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The goal for our July 2009 trip to Round Island, located in Bristol Bay off the Alaskan mainland, was primarily to see hundreds of Pacific Walruses.  But Round Island has rocky headlands that are the nest sites of a quarter-million seabirds, so we enjoyed five days of wonderful birding at close range and with a soundtrack that always included the lyrical cries of Black-legged Kittiwakes and the beautiful notes of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes.  The only ducks we observed were nine Harlequin Ducks in the surf; we are more accustomed to seeing Harlequin Ducks on the fast rivers near our Olympic Peninsula home.

For this weblog entry, I will show you some of my favorite photographs of birds on the island.  I didn’t spend as much time photographing birds as I would have liked, because of several days of windy conditions and the constant distraction of photographing Walruses; however, I was thrilled with the photography I was able to do.

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Tufted Puffin at burrow entrance

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Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) in breeding plumage perched at the entrance to its burrow, located among tundra grasses on a cliff face within the Round Island State Game Sanctuary in Bristol Bay, Alaska.  The Tufted Puffins were secretive around their burrow entrances, and seemed to wait until we were looking away before silently entering the opening.

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Savannah Sparrow atop dried umbel

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Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) surveying its territory from atop a dried umbel of a Cow Parsnip or Angelica.  Savannah Sparrows were the most common songbird on the island; wherever we walked, they were constantly chipping from atop plants or rocks, and were gathering insects with which to feed their young.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) in breeding plumage perched at edge of breeding colony.  The Horned Puffins perched on exposed rocks on the cliff faces, often several together.  This puffin was sitting about 100 feet from where we pitched our tent, so whenever lighting conditions were good, we would quietly approach the cliff to see if birds were present.  The puffins allowed us to sit on an overlook and photograph, perhaps 35 feet from them.

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Horned Puffins motion picture

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Horned Puffins in flight, heading back to their burrows after a fishing trip off Round Island.  At this point the puffins did not appear to have young, because we never observed any carrying fish.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage stretching and fluffing its wings while perched at the edge of a cliff on Round Island.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Bright reddish-orange feet and wonderful faces characterize this species.

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Landscape of Round Island

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The grassy headlands and rocky cliffs of Round Island provide good habitat for a variety of songbirds and seabirds. There are no bears or wolves on the island, which is located some 40 miles from the mainland.  Here the major predators on nesting birds are Red Foxes and Common Ravens.

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.Pelagic Cormorants in breeding plumage

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Pelagic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax urile) in breeding plumage resting, showing metallic iridescence when the sun was coming from directly behind us.

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Pelagic Cormorants with chicks

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Pelagic Cormorants on nests with young, perched on the vertical cliff faces of Round Island.

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Common Murre (Uria aalge) with blue eggs on seaside cliff.  During the half-hour or so that we observed this ledge, the adult left the ledge and both eggs were snatched by a marauding Common Raven.  Staff member Stephanie Sell mentioned that this location had been particularly susceptible to Raven raids, and that many eggs had been lost to predation.

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Common Raven Panting

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Common Raven (Corvus corax) panting to reduce heat stress on a hot day, when temperatures rose to about 80°F (and the temperature inside our tent at 10:00 p.m. was about 110°! ).  Ravens nested on Round Island, and we watched a cliffside nest with four young that were nearly ready to fledge.

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.Egg raided by Common Raven

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A seabird egg probably taken by a Common Raven (we’re not sure of the egg species).  We also observed a Raven carrying a bloody carcass of a small bird, probably a nestling, that it subsequently buried by piling pebbles and wildflowers atop it, creating a cache for later use.

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.Common Raven feather

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Closeup of a molted Common Raven feather.

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Parakeet Auklet (Aethia psittacula) perched on a rock just above the sea.  Often, half-a-dozen auklets gathered on the same rock and chattered noisily.

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Headlands and treeless tundra on Round Island, Alaska

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Tundra grasses on steep hillsides were a better habitat for humans than birds, but we did see Savannah Sparrows there.  In a willow thicket, Hermit Thrushes sang and nested.

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Round Island headquarters building

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Atop the sanctuary office building, Golden-crowned Sparrows sang their sorrowful descending notes that reminded me of “Three Blind Mice.”  This is as close as I got (the sparrow is on the roofline on the right side).  Note the steel cables that hold down the building during hurricane-force winds.

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You can read other descriptions of our Round Island adventures at:

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Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

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I am the Walrus

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4th of July in an Eskimo Village

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

September 9, 2009

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Pacific Walrus tusk and shadowPacific Walrus basking on the rocky shore of Round Island, Alaska

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As we perched on a rocky headland above Bristol Bay, two Pacific Walruses sparred in the shallow water below, their jabbing tusks gleaming in the late afternoon sun.  Clouds of spray splashed up from the roiling waters in a battle for dominance.  And these were just two males among a hundred or so around thisRound Island in distance, Alaska sheltered stony beach, with perhaps six hundred resting and swimming on the fringes of Round Island on this early July day in bright Alaskan sunshine.

Our trip to see Walruses began several days earlier.  We approached Round Island on July 5th, after an early morning boat trip from Togiak, a Yup’ik Eskimo village at the mouth of the Togiak River.  Round Island, part of Alaska’s Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, lies about 40 miles offshore, and is accessible only by a small charter boat.  As we drew closer to the island, Paul Markoff, the Captain and charter operator, cut the big engine to a murmur and asked me to stop using myCharter boat approaching Round Island camera flash, so as not to disturb the dozen Walruses basking atop Flat Rock.  Alaska Fish & Game seasonal employee Stephanie Sell stood at the rocky base of the cliff, garbed in tall rubber boots and a bright squall parka, ready to help us transfer our gear and give us an island orientation.  The boat departed, and Stephanie duly recorded in her field notes that several Walruses had been spooked off the rock by our arrival.

You wouldn’t think that 4,000 lb. creatures would be scared by a small boat, but Walruses areCharter boat reaching Round Island extraordinarily sensitive to the sound of motors.  Even a small plane, flying too low, can cause a panic, with hundreds of the immense creatures fleeing the land for the safety of the sea–a panic that can result in trampling and death much like a shouted threat of fire in a crowded theater.  That is why the regulations are so strict.

We climbed the steep stairs and said our brief goodbye to the arrival beach, which would be off limits to us until our departure.  Stephanie showed us around the camping area, which has half-a-dozen or so tent platforms, which sit atop

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Walruses and Dragon's Tail on Round IslandFrom the camping area: Walruses basking on Flat Rock, with Dragon’s Tail distant, and hundreds more Walruses were resting on the beach below Dragon’s Tail

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archaeological digs of campsites that were used seasonally for 6,000 years.  The archaelogist figured that the safest way to ensure the long-term conservation of these sites was to cover them up with the platforms.  We expected to see or hear ghosts of old Eskimos in the middle of the night, but our sleep was sound on this island that lacks Brown Bears and other nightmares.

We next checked out the cooking tent, which provided a good place to get out of rain and wind.  It also had a propane stove, which was important since we could not bring a backpacking stove and fuel on our plane rides.  There was a big bin forCook tent on Round Island food storage, to keep the island’s Red Foxes from gaining access to human food.  Water was available nearby from a tiny stream, but it had to be filtered or otherwise treated.

Next, Stephanie showed us the sanctuary office, which was headquarters for the three staff, who stay on the island from May to mid-August, when the weather starts to deteriorate.  A generator and solar power provided enough electricity for the staff to have a bit of power to fuel the radios and a computer that are the only means of contacting the mainland.  Stephanie taught us Cooking tent interior on Round Island, Alaskahow to use the radios and Iridium satellite phone, in case of a serious emergency (a heart attack qualifies, but not a sprained ankle), if staff was not available.

After the briefing, we were on our own with a list of wildlife-watching rules echoing in our heads.  The island has a trail system that leads to a series of overlooks, where we could see Walruses, Stellar’s Sea Lions, Horned Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, and other seabirds.  After setting up our tent, we immediately assembled our photo gear and crept up to a viewpoint about 100 feet away, where we had a

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Pacific Walrus bones and tusks on Round Island

Round Island Sanctuary office, with old bones from a Walrus that was part of a 1970s-era research project

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wonderful close view of Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins perched on a lichen-covered rock in the afternoon sunshine.  This made a fine start to our wildlife watching and photography.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage near our campsite

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After watching the puffins for a time, we crouch-walked away from the overlook, and began a hike toward one end of the island, where there is a rock formation that looks like a jagged spine leading far out into the ocean.  The staff calls this formation the “Dragon’s Tail,” an appropriate name for what looks like a scaly tail emerging from the depths.  At the end of the trail, we kneeled at an overlook where wePacific Walrus threat postures among the resting herd looked down upon hundreds more Walruses, basking along the Dragon’s Tail beaches.  Closer, we had an intimate view of sheer cliff faces, alive with the shrill cries of hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes, some in flight and others perched on precarious nests clinging to the cliff face.  Common Murres occupied nearby ledges, attempting to guard their big blue eggs against marauding Common Ravens.

We have a lot of patience for watching wildlife, so the hours flew by on our first day, as we thrilled to the sight of walruses just 100 feet away.  We finally got hungry, and hiked to the cook tent to make our dinner.  We eat simply when we’re in the field, so it was a dehydrated Backpacker’s Pantry brand dinner of Jamaican BBQ Chicken.  Pretty good, at that.  But  the island’s only other guests, a pair of guys from Manhattan, had more sophisticated tastes; they prepared an elaborate meal of fresh vegetables and morel mushrooms that had the aroma of a fine restaurant (undoubtedly the taste as well, but we’ll never know, since it was their dinner).

After dinner, we walked back to an overlook and enjoyed the view of puffins and Parakeet Auklets and Walruses loudly exhaling as they surfaced offshore.  By now, it was 11:00 pm, but the sun had not yet set.  We were tired, so we retired to the tent

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Pacific Walrus, pale and exhaling upon surfacingWalrus exhaling after a deep dive, pale from the cold of the ocean depths

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for a blissful sleep in a night that never really got dark.  We drifted off to dream, with a sound track of Kittiwake cries and Walrus’s sharply exhaling.

In the morning, we decided to climb to the top of the island, after the Manhattan guys described the wonderful views out over Bristol Bay.  We stopped at the sanctuary office, picked up a map and a radio (in case of an emergency), then proceeded to begin the hike and climb.  Since there is no trail to the top, we relied

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Outhouse on Round Island, AlaskaThe high dome of Round Island rises nearly 1500 feet above sea level, and is a steep, hard hike.  The camp outhouse, in the foreground, is secured with steel cables so that it won’t blow over in the high winds.

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on a description of where to make the climb so that we wouldn’t encounter dead-end cliffs.  It was steep, as we knew  from looking at the high dome of an island towering above our camp.  We trudged over low willow thickets, and around the highest trees on this tundra-clad island–which were a few willows about eight feet tall.  As the pitch grew steeper, our calves burned, but we eventually summited.  The island rises nearly 1,500 feet above sea level and gives a panoramic view of the bay, the distant mainland, and the sparkling blue Bering Sea.

On our way up, we were struck by the beautiful wildflowers everywhere.  Since there are no grazing animals on the island, vegetation is abundant and lush for the subarctic tundra.  There were yellow Alaska Poppies, deep blue Monkshood, dark

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AK_Round_Island-530 copyAlaska HarebellAlaska Harebell on the left, with Chocolate Lily on the right

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Alaska PoppyAlaska Poppies added delicate yellow petals to the tundra landscape.

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Wild Geranium in AlaskaStunning Wild Geraniums bloomed along the headlands of Round Island.

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brownish purple Chocolate Lilies, vivid purple Violets, lavender/rose Dwarf Fireweed, delicate Spring Beauty and scores of other species at their peak of bloom.  Cloudberry and Nagoonberry trailed along the ground, offering the promise of delicious fruits if we could stay long enough on the island.  There was even Lady Fern, a species we used to cultivate at our home in upstate New York.

We walked along Red Fox trails on the high, relatively flat summit, passing several dens.  We were disappointed not to see any Red Foxes here or anywhere else on Watching Pacific Walrus on Round Islandthe island, though there is supposed to be a population of about 30 foxes.  They were undoubtedly watching us, but predators can remain hidden if they wish.  The Red Foxes, as well as the other major predator, Common Ravens, make their living largely by eating seabirds and their eggs, at least during the long nesting season.  One predator, not previously known on the island, was discovered this year.  Diane Calamar Okonek, the sanctuary manager, discovered a Weasel foraging along the shore.  The winters must be hard on the predators after the fat summers teeming with life, but there are Lemmings on the island that would make a good winter dinner.

While watching Walruses from one overlook, we saw a Common Raven fly in with a bloody red mass that was almost certainly a chick, perhaps from a puffin or murre.  The raven layed it on the ground, then proceeded to pick up stone after stone, which it laid on top of the dead bird; then it ripped off some grasses and wildflowers, and laid those on top.  It was either an elaborate burial ceremony or the caching of food for later use.  We suspect the latter.  This is the fat time of year for predators, and we had watched ravens snatching a lot of eggs from the 250,000 nesting birds on the island, so a little bit of saving for a rainy day was a good raven survival strategy.

From the far end of the island, we had a spectacular view down over Dragon’s Tail.  Perhaps 300 Walruses were huddled together in several groups strung out along the beaches of Dragon’s Tail.  We observed the spine of this rock formation leading

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Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's Tail

Walruses resting on the haul-outs along the beaches of the Dragon’s Tail rock formation: in some years there would be thousands on these beaches (instead of the hundreds shown here)

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hundreds of yards out into Bristol Bay.  Also from the summit of Round Island, we got to see the exceedingly steep other side of the island.  Rock outcrops, looking like castles, broke the steep slope and were circled by Black-legged Kittiwakes, calling with a sound that reminded me of children crying.

Round Island is a rich sensory experience.  The scent of salt air mingles with the intense smells of thousands of nesting seabirds and resting Walruses.  Seabirds fly Castle-like formation on Round Islandeverywhere overhead, crying out ceaselessly.  On the way down from the summit, we heard a Hermit Thrush making its elegant song from the willow thickets; this was a sound we did not expect, since we are used to hearing these thrushes in the ancient forests of our Pacific Northwest wilderness.  Golden-crowned Sparrows called mournfully from perches; Savanna Sparrows chipped constantly from atop the dried umbels of Cow Parsnip and Wild Celery.

That night, a strong wind rose, flapping the tent vigorously and reminding us why the sanctuary guidelines strongly suggest bringing a four-season tent.  Weather is often a concern here, with high winds and drenching rains during the summer.  In fact, one visitor wrote in the logbook:  “Now it’s raining, wet, and very, very, windy.  Our outhouse blew over last night.” That’s not likely to happen again, because the outhouse and the headquarters buildings are each held down by steel cables that stretch over the roof and are securely anchored in the ground.  The winds can keep small charter boats from making the trip out to the island; in fact, campers are told to

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Windy day in camp, Round Island, AlaskaStrong winds turned the tall grasses and our tent into a motion picture.

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have a week’s extra supply of food in case of a prolonged storm.  We heard of a pair of German photographers who were stuck in Dillingham for ten days, trying to get to the island.  They ran out of time and were never able to make the voyage out.  For this reason, we built in a couple of extra days at the beginning and end of the trip, so that we would have some flexibility.

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Headlands Trail on Round IslandTrail along the headlands on a windy day..

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The winds were strong for the next two days, but no rains came.  Wildflower and small bird photography became impossible, but we were able to concentrate on photographing the Walruses and Steller Sea Lions during this unsettled period.  Prior to our coming, there had been an intense storm that crashed huge waves along the island’s beaches, ruining the quiet basking that the Walruses prefer.  So the Walruses went to Plan B, and sailed out to sea for a period of diving and feeding.  During our visit, the big mammals were gradually returning.  By the third day of our trip, they had returned to another cove that gave us some wonderful new views from the low headlands.

There were perhaps 600 Walruses on the island by the end of our visit.  This compares with some years in the not-so-distant past when there were 10,000 Walruses on Round Island.  Biologists are not sure why there has been a change,

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Pacific Walrus resting on rocks on Round IslandWalrus resting among the voluptuous rocks along the shore.

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but one possible reason is that they may have temporarily depleted the food supply near the island.  Walruses dive for clams, and that is their primary food source.  When that food source is depleted, the big mammals can shift to other haul-outs during the summer where nearby food is more plentiful.  I decided to write a separate weblog entry about Walrus biology, because I wanted to say so much that there wasn’t room here.  Go to: https://leerentz.wordpress.com/2009/09/08/i-am-the-walrus/

There is another big marine mammal that claims a separate beach at Round Island.  The Steller Sea Lion haul-out is found at the opposite end of the island from the Walruses.  We hiked out to a high overlook, which gave us a bird’s eye view of

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Steller Sea Lions at Round IslandPolygamous Steller Sea Lion male with a few of his favored females.

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these graceful creatures.  Actually, the females and young are sleek and graceful, but the hulking males are corpulent and demanding lords over their territory, reminding me for all the world of Jabba the Hutt in one of the original Star Wars movies.  We watched one male surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful females.  Apparently, these are not like an Elk harem, in which the male jealously guards his polygamous family.  Instead, the huge male sets up a territory, from which females are free to come and go.  But his presence provides genes for the lovely ladies and protection for their young.

While watching the Steller Sea Lions, a group of about 20 females swam together at the base of the cliffs in what seemed to be synchronous swimming.  They were so graceful that they should probably try out for the summer Olympics.  Despite the Swimming Steller Sea Lionsapparently thriving Round Island population, numbers of Stellar Sea Lions have dropped precipitously in the Aleutian Islands–so much so that they are now officially listed as an Endangered Species.  We watched Stephanie Sell intently counting the Sea Lions on a mechanical clicker; her job was to count them three times to try and get an accurate census.

In the cook tent, there was a poster showing a colorful moth, with a request that should we find one, we catch it and bring it to the staff.  The moth, known by its scientific name of Artica opulenta, is found elsewhere, but the Round Island population has a unique color pattern.  Lo and behold, we found one in the trail about 150 yards from the headquarters building.  It was a stunner–with striking black & white patterned wings and a body of vivid reddish-orange and black.  I captured it in my hand and carried it to the office, where we interrupted the staff’s wonderful-smelling curry dinner.  Diane, the sanctuary manager, was ecstatic at our find.  After duly photographing it, she and Stephanie put it into the “nighty night” jar where it would enter perpetual sleep, and eventually join a national collection of arctic moths and butterflies.

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Pacific Walrus, pale upon surfacing from the depthsA big male, pale after a long session of cold, deep sea diving.

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Diane, with her husband Brian, have been stationed at Round Island each summer for many years.  They are dedicated to ensuring the safety of all creatures on the island (with the possible exception of our moth, but science trumps preservation in that instance).  The sanctuary is tightly run, with counts of Walruses and nesting seabirds done on a regular basis so that population trends can be monitored.

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Diane Calamar Okonek on Round IslandAK_Round_Island-259

Staff members Diane Calamar Okonek, sanctuary manager, on the left and Stephanie Sell counting sea lions on the right

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Visitors to the island are also tightly monitored; except for the trek to the summit, we were confined to the trail system and overlooks.  That worked out well, even for us photographers, since the overlooks are located in the best places.

As a serious photographer, taking good photographs on the island was my highest priority, and Karen always wants to record vivid visual memories of a trip.  Since this was a special trip, Karen brought a high-definition video camera, and I brought a full-frame digital SLR.  I also brought enough memory cards so I could take about 2,000 pictures in the RAW format, which gives me more flexibility in exposures.  I brought a 500mm lens with a 1.4x extender, a 70-200mm zoom lens, a 100mm macro lens, a 24-105mm all-purpose zoom for landscapes, and a graphite tripod.  I did not bring a computer for downloading the images because of battery issues, but that ended up being OK because it gave me more time to concentrate on the wildlife rather than the computer.  Lord knows I spend way too many hours in front of the computer as it is.

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Clouds above peak on Round Island, AlaskaDramatic puffy clouds above the tundra summit of Round Island.

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Now, for some important trip details.  The weather was warmer than we expected, so our winter-weight sleeping bags were overkill. During some periods on the island the heavy bags would feel just right.  Camping on the island is allowed from sometime in May until sometime in August, when staff leave for the year.  July, when we visited, is supposed to have the best, most consistent, weather.  Mosquitoes?  Most of the time, with the constant breezes, they were not a problem.  Pacific Walrus warming up on Round IslandOn our last day, there was virtually no wind at all, so we were bitten a few times.  On the other hand, at what other time in our lives will we be able to say that we shared blood and DNA with a Horned Puffin?

In the cook tent there is a small library of articles about Round Island, which made for wonderful reading while drinking my morning coffee.  There is also a logbook where visitors can sum up their experiences; here are a few of the entries from recent years:

“We are on our honeymoon, and Round Island is a place we have dreamed about going to for a long time.”

“We weathered 3 nights in Togiak and may have 3 more here past our departure date, but the one day here yesterday–full of sunshine–is well worth it.”Pacific Walrus climbing up on a rock at Round Island

“For days I had been hearing a sound like a string instrument and I assumed it was the wind in the cliffs, or that I was imagining the sound. Diane told me that the walrus make the sound; it is one of the most amazing noises I’ve ever heard, and who would think such a noise would come from a walrus?”

“The weather increased our stay by two days …”

“Arrived on beautiful calm seas after two days of high wind that kept us in Togiak.”

“Where else but Round Island can you sit in the outhouse and watch walrus swim by?”

“Falling asleep to the sound of walruses swimming by below my tent site is something I will never forget.”

“Truly the trip of a lifetime …”

On our last morning on the island, a parade of Walruses swam by below our tent, just a few feet from shore on the high tide.  They were making their musical chorus of sounds:  bell-like sounds when their air sacs are inflated; sharp train whistle

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Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayWalrus loudly exhaling as it passes by our tent site.

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toots; and their Bronx cheer of bubbling breaths upon surfacing.  Not only that, but some were swimming peaceably side-by-side, rather than jabbing at each other with fierce tusks in their more normal displays of dominance.  We think they were saying an affectionate “goodbye” to us.

Diane came to our tent that morning and said that we had sure gotten lucky.  I hoped she meant that charter Captain Paul Markoff couldn’t make it and that we could spend an extra day on the island, but, no, she merely Charter boat arriving at Round Islandmeant that the weather had been particularly fine during our visit.  So, we reluctantly packed up our tent and the rest of our gear, and prepared to meet Paul at the cove.

This trip is now a wonderful memory of one of the high points in our lives.  We would love to go back to Round Island, for more days drinking in the rich nature of that spectacular place, where we could again enjoy watching the planet’s distant inhabitants as they experience the daily rhythms of their lives.

If you are curious about Round Island, and want to see about getting a five-day camping permit for the island, go to this website: http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=refuge.rnd_is This will give you the necessary information to begin planning one of those trips of a lifetime.  Paul Markoff, the owner of Togiak Outfitters, can be reached through the information on this web page: http://www.visitbristolbay.org/togiakoutfitters/

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Leaving Round Island, AlaskaSadly leaving Round Island on a beautiful, calm morning on Bristol Bay

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Pacific Walrus herd on Round IslandWalrus haul-out at Second Beach.

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Pacific Walrus using flippers to move on a rock.Walruses move on land by using their flippers

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Pacific Walrus pale upon emerging from the Pacific Ocean depthsPale male Walrus, cold and whitish because its blood retreats to the body core, coming to land after time spent diving for clams in the cold ocean bottom

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Pacific Walruses sparring in the waters off Round IslandMale Walruses fighting for dominance in Bristol Bay, just off the Round Island cliffs

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AK_Round_Island-250 copyThe Round Island headlands shelter a quarter million nesting seabirds

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To view the three other weblog stories from our trip to Round Island, go to:

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I am the Walrus

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4th of July in an Eskimo Village

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Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to myPhotoShelter Website

I Am the Walrus

September 8, 2009

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Pacific Walrus male portrait showing tusks and nodules

I am the Walrus, or at least the best looking Walrus, on Round Island

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You strange two-legged creature:  I’ve seen you watching us from that high overlook, and as long as you stay right there I’ll tell you a bit about myself, since you are so curious and you’re probably going to stay there unless I reveal a bit about me and hundreds of my closest friends.  Just wait a minute while I jab my neighbor with my ivories for no particular reason.

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Pacific Walrus threat postureWe like to give each other the evil eye and threaten each other with our favorite weapons–our gleaming white ivory tusks!

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Yes, my ivory tusks are long, and they are closely related to your puny canine teeth.  Those of us who believe in evolution–and that’s surprisingly few among us Walruses–think that we had a distant bear-like ancestor who decided that swimming and diving for clams wasn’t such a bad way to live.  In fact, I can’t imagine any better way to live than mucking around the murky ocean bottom, 200 feet down, probing in the dark for clams hiding in the mud.

Did you know that all of us here at Round Island are males?  Yes, I suppose you had guessed that by the tough guys surrounding me right now, several of whom

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Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's Tail

Hundreds of us gathered on the shore of Dragon’s Tail, on Round Island.

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are giving me the evil eye.  “Back at you, one tusk!”  The testosterone is thick here, but with my 4,000 lbs. and 36″ tusks I can fight ANYONE on the beach and win.  At least I think so.  And I’ve got some major league scars to prove it.  But even I am reluctant to tangle with Orcas and Polar Bears.

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See all these big bumps on my neck and shoulders?  Only we males have them, and they develop in our maturing years, kind of like your teenage boys get a big Adam’s apple and whiskers.  In contrast, our ladies have shoulders as smooth as silk–or at least smooth as thick leather.  We males call our bumps “bosses;” remember that term for your hardest crossword puzzles!

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Pacific Walruses battling for dominanceThere is a time to rest, and a time to fight (I think it says so in Ecclesiastes).

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Here comes a big pale male named “Ghost” emerging from the ocean.  He looks like an albino, but really he is just cold from spending so much time in the ocean depths, and the blood retreated to the core of his body to keep his heart warm.

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Pacific Walrus pale upon emerging from the Pacific OceanGhost is a pale male who just spent the morning groping around the dark sea floor

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Did I mention that we have warm hearts?  When he climbs up here and snuggles close to the rest of us, he will warm up and turn to a bright cinnamon color as his blood rises to the skin.  Much more attractive, don’t you think?  Human, how come you’re so pale?

When the guys get together each summer, we make a lot of noise.  With the ladies up in the arctic this summer, we can belch and burp and sneeze and snuffle and splash and pass gas to our heart’s content, and nobody’s around to turn up their disgusted noses at us.  But we can make some sweet sounds too.  When I was in the ocean this morning, I inflated the air sacs around my neck–they’re kind of like the life vests that I’ve seen on your boats–and began practicing the song I am going to sing when we get together with the ladies again.

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Pacific Walrus singing using inflated pharyngeal sacI sing sweet songs using my inflated pharyngeal sac (my very own life preserver)


Oh, you heard it?  What did you think?  Some of us think it sounds kind of like bells, but I prefer thinking of it as a sweet violin song.  I bet you didn’t think a big, fat, old guy like me could play a violin ever so sweetly, but there you go.  Another mystery for you to contemplate.  And you think you humans know everything!

I like seafood of all sorts, but especially clams.  My buddies can tell you that I’ve eaten 6,000 clams in one morning!  That was a personal best, but I also like sea cucumbers and crabs and shrimp.  Some of my buddies like to catch and eat seals, but that seems like too much work; plus, it’s a bit too much like cannibalism, don’t you think?

You live up there on rock while I spend most of my time in the deep ocean, where it’s dark and cold.  Yeah, I’ve got nearly four inches of  blubber to keep me warm.  Human, I don’t mean any disrespect, but you are carrying quite a bit of blubber too.  What’s your excuse?

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Pacific Walrus using flippers to rub his headI awoke with a headache after a long nap

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Speaking of you, human, I see you have a beard that is showing a bit of white.  Kind of like my whiskers, is it?  No?  Well, my whiskers are actually connected by nerves and muscles to my brain, so I can use them to “feel” the gravel bottom of the ocean.  With my little eyes up pretty far on my head, they are of no use 200′ down at the bottom of the Bering Sea.  So I use my whiskers–actually I call them vibrissae–to help me gather food by touch.

Pacific Walrus climbing up on a rock at Round IslandThey are the most sensitive part of my body, with one exception, hey, hey, if you know what I mean!  Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you; I think I’ve been spending way too much time with the guys.

You’re probably wondering why all of us guys like to snuggle together on the beach, when we don’t even like each other all that much.  On a cold day, it helps keep us warm and it gives us a lot of eyes and ears and noses to look for trouble.  The downside is all these bloody patches on my shoulders where I’ve been stabbed by young toughs.  That’s not to say I don’t get in a few jabs of my own; when I raise my head with these fierce tusks and sharp glare, most of my lessers will back off pretty fast.  My biggest nightmare is losing one of these tusks in battle; that would be so humiliating!  Talk about a blow to a guy’s ego!

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Pacific Walrus with broken tuskOne of the saddest experiences you’ll ever know is losing a tusk.

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My tusks are useful for other tasks that you might not know about.  During the winter, I can come up over the edge of floating ice and sink my ivories into the ice like one of your ice axes; with that grip I can then raise my whole body up over the edge.  Some of your kind, I think they were called “Eskimos,” used to call us “tooth walkers” after seeing what we could do with these babies.

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Pacific Walruses showing threat postures in haulout on Round IslResting with my peer group on Flat Rock (though, in reality, I am peerless).

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Pacific Walrus hind feetDid you know that I have tiny toenails on my flippers?

Do I miss the women and children?  Well, sort of, but we said our goodbyes shortly after mating and that’s all right by me.  She can raise the kid all on her own and I would just get in the way.  Isn’t that how a lot of you humans live?  Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize that was such a sensitive subject …

I’m getting kind of warm laying out here in the hot July sun, so if you don’t mind, I’m just going to roll off this rock and into the ocean.  Watch the big splash!

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Pacific Walrus entering oceanSee ya later, gator!..

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Oh, and why don’t you come and visit me next winter!  I’ll be on an ice flow several hundred miles from here, and you can take a combination dogsled and boat tour.  Just ask around if you have trouble finding me:  my Walrus name is Goo Goo G’Joob.  Everyone knows me by reputation.  Meanwhile, let me say goodbye to you with my favorite bubbly Bronx cheer.

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Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayI bet you wish you could hear me right about now!..

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Pacific Walrus waving flipper while restingBye now!..

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To view three other weblog stories of our Round Island trip, go to:

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4th of July in an Eskimo Village

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Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

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Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to myPhotoShelter Website

4th of July in an Eskimo Village

September 8, 2009

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Piper airplane cockpitPilot at the Piper’s controls during the short hop across taiga and tundra from Dillingham to Togiak, in which Karen and I were the only passengers

A bumpy 70 mile plane ride from Dillingham to Togiak, Alaska, took us over Black Spruce taiga, which soon gave way to pond-splattered tundra and rugged hills.  Karen Rentz on PiperWe were the only two passengers on the long-in-service PenAir Piper; when Karen asked if we could take pictures in the air, the pilot joked “as long as I’m not doing anything illegal!”

From the air we photographed the meandering rivers and beautiful green tundra landscapes, with ponds speckled by lily pads.  Looking down, I saw a Brown Bear digging in the earth, going after Arctic Ground Squirrels or favorite roots.  As we approached the coast, we sailed over the village

of Twin Hills and took in the view over Bristol Bay and out to the Bering Sea.  The village of Togiak, huddled along the coast below, was our destination.

Togiak River delta

Aerial view of the Togiak River Delta where it enters Bristol Bay

Togiak, Alaska, aerial view

The Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak is strung along Bristol Bay

Togiak was to be the staging area for our trip to Round Island, a Pacific Walrus sanctuary in Bristol Bay off the Alaskan coast, which is accessible only by a chartered boat.  Many Round Island visitors spend numerous days in Togiak, because frequent high winds make the journey impossible in a small craft.  In fact, a couple of men from Manhattan, who shared the island experience with us, had an extra wind day added to both the beginning and end of their trip.

After landing in a cloud of dust on the gravel airstrip, we climbed down the wing to the ground, then dumped our duffels into the open back of a late-model red Dodge pickup.  The native driver asked where we were going; when we said Esther’s B and B, he knew exactly where to take us, which was only a few blocks away.

Actually, there were a few other cars and trucks in this village, which stretches for maybe a mile along Bristol Bay, and we counted three school buses.  But mostly people got around town by four-wheel ATVs, ATV in Togiak, Alaskaand by snow machines during the long winter.  This town, like most along the coast, is isolated, with no roads connecting it to other Alaskan settlements.  Supplies are brought in by air and by ocean-going barges.

Over 90% of residents are Eskimos; their lives are a blend of traditional subsistence and modern conveniences.  There were brilliant red Sockeye Salmon drying on racks in the warm sunshine, with delicious belly strips of salmon curing in a smokehouse, while satellite dishes beamed in Nickelodeon and the daily soaps to appreciative young and old audiences.  Walrus and seals are shot for food each autumn, but there is also a well-lit supermarket Air-drying Sockeye Salmonwith fresh produce and plenty of junk food.  By the way, when we asked Esther what Walrus tastes like, she said it looked like dark beef but tasted like clams!

This Yup’ik Eskimo village has been in the general location for at least 2,000 years; the earliest dwellings were long ago replaced with an assortment of several hundred weathered houses, stores, and service buildings.  According to the 2000 census, 809 people live in the village.  Based on the number of young Eskimo children and pregnant women we saw, the next census will see a substantial jump.  The median age in town is a very young 23.

Bristol Bay and the Togiak River are famous for their fisheries.  Paul Markoff, our charter boat operator (http://www.visitbristolbay.org/togiakoutfitters/)pointed out the cannery across the bay from the village.  During our visit, many of the village’s men and boys were out in the bay fishing; some of the catch is for themselves; most is wholesaled to Togiak Fisheries, the local fish processor.  Paul pointed out that much of this is sold in Costco stores around America. The Togiak River sports runs of Sockeye, Chinook, Silver, Pink, and Chum Salmon, and is the destination of sport fishermen who fly in to several fishing resorts.

Since we were visiting on Independence Day, there were special celebrations going on.  We went to the beach bonfire, which was hosted by the cannery and attended by scores of local children, who toasted marshmallows over the flames and smushed them into a graham cracker sandwich with a chocolate bar.  Mmmmm.  Actually, we’re a bit old to enjoy s’mores, but we enjoyed watching the cute Eskimo kids havingEskimo woman and child on ATV a good time.  Several little girls were piling gravel into the bottom of their shirts, folding the cloth over, and pretending they were pregnant.  One girl asked us why we were wearing our down jackets; after all, it was a warm summer evening.  I guess Eskimos have a different tolerance toward cold!

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Yup'ik Eskimo women and children in Togiak, AlaskaYup’ik Eskimo women and children enjoying a 4th of July bonfire on the beach

Speaking of cold, Paul Markoff said that the winters get to be really long.  The bay in front of town freezes completely, and even part of Bristol Bay freezes over, as temperatures sometimes drop to -40°F.  The dusk of winter daytime last four or five Homes in Togiak, Alaskahours, and this is a time to hunker down and dream of spring.  But, since the people have snow machines, they can also take long trips in the winter.  Paul spoke of people who made the overland trek to Dillingham on their machines.  Togiak, like many native villages, is a dry town, with no alcohol to be in the possession of anyone at any time.  Marijuana is another matter, with weed being the drug of choice by some of the village folk (as it is throughout much of Alaska).

Later on the 4th, there were to be traditional fireworks over the town, but we were too tired to partake.  Besides, fireworks at midnight during the perpetual light twilight of an Alaska summer night is not quite the same as seeing them against a dark sky.  Eskimos are patriotic Americans, with a tradition of proud service in wartime.  Interestingly, Yup’ik Eskimos also live across the Bering Sea–in Russian Siberia.  The old tribal roots don’t fit so neatly into the politics and allegiances of the modern world.

Upon our return from Round Island, Paul Markoff took us on an ATV tour of town.  We visited his family’s salmon drying and smoking racks, and went into the house of an elder craftsman, Willie Wassillie,who made art objects from Walrus tusk Willie Wassillie, Ivory Carverivory.  We looked at his wonderful carvings, and selected a miniature Walrus to purchase.  He spoke little or no English, so his wife interpreted for us.  Meanwhile, we were interrupting her watching of Days of Our Lives, which was showing on the living room TV.  Traditional and contemporary America side by side in the home of a Yup’ik Eskimo.

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Willie Wassillie, a Togiak Eskimo and master craftsman in the medium of Walrus ivory.  Upon returning home, we were able to view several additional pieces of his work at http://alaskanativearts.org.  This Walrus ivory is taken from animals hunted sustainably and for subsistence.

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Laundry on the line, Togiak, AlaskaFishing boat shares the beach with laundry sustainably drying

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Bike in TogiakA bicycle in Togiak gets less use than the modern ATVs that are used everywhere in this small village as the preferred way to get around

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No alcohol in Togiak, AlaskaTogiak is a dry village, with no alcohol allowed anywhere

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Paul Markoff ATV tour of Togiak, AlaskaKaren Rentz taking an ATV tour of Togiak with Captain Paul Markoff.

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To view three other weblog stories of our Round Island trip, go to:

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I am the Walrus

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Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

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Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

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