Just getting to St. Matthew and Hall islands is an adventure. Senior Scientist Aaron Wells made the journey as part of a multidisciplinary biological expedition to this most remote place in Alaska, located in the middle of the Bering Sea and over 200 miles from the nearest village. In early June 2018, Aaron flew from Fairbanks to St. Paul, Alaska. From there, he and the rest of the field crew boarded the R/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah — Aleut for eagle) for a 25-hour boat ride to the islands where they would spend the next two weeks conducting wildlife and vegetation surveys.
Loading gear on the R/V Tiglax, St. Paul, AK
Aaron volunteered to be the designated vegetation ecologist on a team that also included eight bird biologists, a museum collections manager, and an archeologist. Aaron’s primary purpose on the expedition was to collect data for a vegetation land cover map of the islands. He also took the opportunity to search for plant species of interest to the herbariums of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Anchorage.
Primula borealis; Aaron Wells (left) on the skiff ride into Hall Island with Bob Gill (retired USGS biologist and volunteer), Bering Sea, AK
The expedition was organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge staff, who visit the islands every 5–6 years to complete population surveys for McKay’s Buntings (Plectrophenax hyperboreu) and a subspecies of Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis ptilocnemis), two bird species for which St. Matthew Island is the primary nesting grounds. Aaron’s land cover maps will be used in habitat analysis for these birds.
Getting back from St. Matthew Island is also an adventure. The team shipped back to St. Paul Island, where they enjoyed an extended 3-day stay watching World Cup soccer and waiting for the weather to allow their flights back home. You can read more about Aaron’s experience by clicking on this link, where you will find an overview of the flora, fauna, and human history of St. Matthew and Hall islands, followed by his daily journal entries from the June 2018 expedition.
Snow field and volcanic spire (foreground), Bering Sea (background), St. Matthew Island, AK; View from the top of Glory of Russia Cape looking southeast, St. Matthew Island, AK