Thursday, May 18, 2017. It’s 3:35 pm and I am sitting on my twin-size bed in A-Dorm, trying to spend my afternoon off wisely. I already took an hour-long nap. I have been on St. Paul Island for eight days now, and might be out of the first impressions zone… and have entered the circuitry-meltdown zone. Busily rewiring all the connections in my brain, hoping I don’t blow any fuses.
At the beginning of every new job, there is an awkward period when everything is unfamiliar and strange, nothing routine. Gear, clothing, and equipment fit uncomfortably. Actions feel clumsy and uncoordinated. There is no muscle memory yet, and every simple task requires attention and thought. I haven’t figured out yet which items need to go in the backpack for the day’s work, and which pocket each thing fits into best. Where are my house keys? What am I forgetting to bring when I leave in the morning?
Because I will be driving people around to various sites on the island, I have to learn my way around. This week I’ve gotten the lay of the land, all the roads, the place names of hills and lakes, ponds and melt-pools, points and cliffs and shorelines. Where to park, how to approach a certain vantage point, how to walk around wetland edges and sidehill cuts and quarries. Which way is the wind blowing? What is that smaller island called? Is the tide coming in or going out?
There have been a lot of new birds for me. Life birds. Bar-tailed Godwit, Tundra “Bewick’s” Swan, Northern Wheatear, Pacific Golden-Plover, Least Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Red-legged Kittiwake, King Eider, Common Pochard, Lapland Longspur in breeding plumage, Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch, Rock Sandpiper (Pribilof subspecies). I’ve learned how to tell the difference between a Eurasian Green-Winged Teal and an American Green-Winged Teal, and if they’ve interbred the offspring is called an intergrade, not a hybrid, because it was two subspecies who crossed, not two species who crossed. What bird species are common here? Which ones are just passing through? Which ones are incredibly unusual and worthy of sending out a rare bird alert?
My eyes are burning, tired. So much wind, sunlight filtered through fog, mist, and salt spray. Constantly focused concentration. Yesterday I worked on the computer for two hours and was out driving and birding for nine.
I get a smart phone with the job – my first smart phone ever – so have had to learn how to use that. I’m required to submit a daily birds checklist on eBird, so have to learn how to use eBird, both as a smartphone app and on my laptop. My photos weren’t turning out very well due to the low light conditions, so Cameron showed me how to reset the ISO and also how to set it to AV, “Aperture Servo,” which means that you can choose your aperture and the camera compensates by picking a shutter speed that will work. At least I think that’s what it means! My very nice Canon EOS Rebel T6 camera is so different than my Canon PowerShot, and also different than my Canon AE1 ever was, so even though I’ve done photography since high school, I have to learn the whole new system.
There are five different tour vehicles; of course, each one is different and has quirks. A Toyota SUV with 208,000 miles on it, windows that don’t roll down, doors and locks that hardly open from all the years of volcanic grit and wind trying to rip the doors off the hinges. Two white vans, one a Chevy and one a GMC, fairly straightforward since I’m familiar with those models. The Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter van stumps me, though. It’s only a year old but already has idiosyncrasies of its own, some caused by this harsh environment, but some engineered in. First and foremost, all the symbols on the dash board are European, and I have no idea what they mean. I had to download the manual to find out how to unlock the doors. And where is the cup holder? And where is the gas cap, for the love of pete? (Because I didn’t have the manual handy, I had to resort to watching a YouTube tutorial on the hotel computer.) The final monster in the fleet is a massive 22-passenger International diesel tour bus, complete with semi-truck giant steering wheel, tour guide microphone, and mirror to keep an eye on the kids. Each of these five vehicles was manufactured by a different company, so even the most basic stuff – where are the lights, windshield wipers, washer fluid, door locks, window openers, gear shift, parking brake – is different on each one and has to be learned.
I’ve met at least twenty people: Barbara, Dennis, Mercy, Jiggs, Samantha, Jason, Thomas, Grace, Cameron, Virgil, Nat, Joe, Gavin, Xavier, John, Neon, Sonny, Charles, Tia, Fabius… I write down all their names and try to remember where each person works, what they do, and match names with faces. In a small community like this, it’s helpful to match people with their vehicles, too, so you know who you’re waving at when you pass them on the roads.
Yes, the people of St. Paul Island do the wave. At least some things are familiar and don’t have to be learned.