Winter Observations of Mammals and Birds, St. Matthew Island


  • C. Peter McRoy
  • Sam W. Stoker
  • George E. Hall
  • Edward Muktoyuk





Remore and uninhabited St. Matthew Island, lying 60 30 N, 172 30 W, on the continental shelf of the Bering Sea, is infrequently visited in summer and very rarely seen in the winter. The only signs of past human habitation are the wind-torn remains of a World War II naval observation station and the rectangular depressions of a couple of Eskimo house pits, of undetermined age, on the southwest side of the island. The last known visit to the island was during the summer of 1966. Our opportunity came on 6 and 7 February 1970, as a result of an oceanographic cruise aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind to study winter conditions in the ice-covered Bering Sea. At that time the island was covered with crusted, wind-glazed snow and locked in sea ice, with open water only along the south shore where large leads had opened up in the lee of the island. The weather was cold and very windy, temperatures ranging from 10°F to -20°F with a wind velocity averaging 30 to 40 knots, from the north. The afternoon of the 6th was clear, permitting a helicopter survey of the entire island. Most of the daylight hours of the 7th were occupied by ground investigations of the island under worsening weather conditions (overcast sky and 40-knot wind). The mammal population of the island is sparse .... We saw only arctic fox and reindeer, with no evidence of small mammals though they are known to exist there. ... Species observed on or in the vicinity of St. Matthew: Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus), Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), Ringed Seal (Phoca hispida,) Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca), Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia), Harlequin (Histrionicus histrionicus), Common Eider (Somateria mollissima), King Eider (Somateria spectabilis), Old squaw (Clangula hyemalis), Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus), Slaty-backed Gull (Larus schistisagus), Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens), Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus), Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea). We found a single herd of 32 reindeer at the southeast corner of the island. The animals were large and appeared to be in good condition, with impressive antlers. They are the remnant of a reindeer population introduced in 1944 that experienced a spectacular increase to 6,000 animals before crashing to 42 in the winter of 1963-64. Klein visited St. Matthew in the summer of 1966 to study the remaining reindeer and collected 10 animals, including the last male. He left 32 animals, all thought to be female, and all of which survived the intervening three and a half years up to the time of our arrival on the island. The observed marine mammal populations in the vicinity of St. Matthew proved to be disappointing. ... Ringed and bearded seals and walrus were observed some distance to the east of St. Matthew, in the edge of the sea ice in Bristol Bay; walrus were seen in large numbers north of the island, in the vicinity of St. Lawrence, so it seems likely that there should be marine mammals present in the area. ... The bird fauna of St. Matthew and vicinity was more diverse than that of the mammal. Twelve species were seen around the island, all of which, with the exception of a snowy owl, were marine and were observed in the leads and polynyas of the sea ice. Most common were murres, harlequins, and oldsquaws. ... As the ship proceeded westward from St. Matthew toward the Siberian coast, murres, black guillemots, and 4 species of gulls were seen. Several slaty-backed and glaucous-winged gulls were seen, and 3 glaucous and 2 ivory gulls observed near 60°N, 175°W. [Interestingly] ... of all the gulls seen, the slaty-back was by far the most common. This species is not considered common in Alaska.