Fog scuds across a sea of iron-gray glass. Northern fulmars skim the water, reflections mirrored inches below their bellies. Our Zodiac sounds strangely out of place as we whine toward St. Matthew, a 32-mile-long sliver of emerald thrown far out into the Bering Sea. Eager to explore this remote slice of wilderness, we spill onto the beach and into the wildflower-studded tundra.
A high-pitched squeak makes me pause, eyes scanning a rocky outcropping. And then I spot it—an almost spherical furball surveying me with beady black eyes, its head cocked nonchalantly to one side. I have stumbled upon a singing vole.
The island of singing voles
The pint-sized singing vole (Microtus abbreviatus) is a poorly understood rodent endemic to St. Matthew and neighboring Hall Island. It is a relic species from the last ice age when St. Matthew and Hall were promontories jutting out of the Bering land bridge. When the ice age ended, the sea swept over the land bridge and marooned the voles on these islands, where they evolved into a species living here and nowhere else.
Families of singing voles live in underground colonies. Tunnels excavated several inches below the surface extend up to 25 feet in a labyrinth of interconnected chambers and passageways. During the summer, singing voles venture out by day to search for grasses, flowers, and willows. A variety of seeds and roots are stored in subterranean larders for wintertime meals. Winters see voles pattering through a warren of tunnels beneath the snow, which insulates them from freezing temperatures above.
And then there are the sounds. Though not as operatic as the name implies, singing voles do possess a wide vocal range. Marc Romano, wildlife biologist and coordinator for the Pacific Seabird Program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been to St. Matthew several times for bird research. “Voles have a whistling call that almost becomes background noise,” he tells me. “The population is so big now their vocalizations are almost constant.”
Predators for singing voles
Plump voles are a tasty snack for several island predators, including long-tailed jaegers and snowy owls. Their primary predators, however, are the island’s only other mammalian residents—arctic and red fox. Arctic fox are native to St. Matthew, having trotted across more than 200 miles of winter sea ice from mainland Alaska millennia ago. Red fox, however, were first recorded on St. Matthew in 1966. Both species feast upon eggs, chicks, and nesting seabirds during the summer, but voles top the menu for the remainder of the year.
Early human visitors may not have commented on the chorus of voles, but they did note the abundance of polar bears. In an 1875 government report, a biologist recounts seeing hundreds of polar bears. Besides greens, the bears almost certainly consumed quite a number of voles. The island had one of the densest polar bear populations in the world until fur hunters eradicated them. Though it was too late for the bears, President Theodore Roosevelt protected St. Matthew as the first seabird refuge in 1909.
Protecting St. Matthew
St. Matthew’s wilderness is now part of the sprawling Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Forty million seabirds comprising 80 percent of Alaska’s nesting population summer on the refuge from the Aleutians to the Chukchi Sea. In addition to pelagic species, St. Matthew hosts the McKay’s bunting, a stunning white passerine endemic to its shores. Because of the bunting’s severely limited range and low population, biologists like Romano regularly visit to monitor it.
“The buntings are one of the only endemic passerines in the Bering Sea and all of Alaska,” Romano tells me. “They spend their entire life cycle going between St. Matthew and the Bering Sea coast of the Yukon Delta. That’s a pretty limited range and very hardy animal.”
The touch of humanity
Today St. Matthew, along with the rest of the Arctic, is experiencing rapid change. Long, warm summers and stormy winters with decreasing sea ice raise warning flags for biologists. “It is a grand and scary experiment we’re conducting here,” says Romano. “Endemic species like the singing vole and McKay’s bunting are of the greatest concern because their range is so restricted. Other species with much broader ranges can adapt to changes in their environment. We see a northward migration in many species [including red fox] as a result of climate change, but these voles and birds don’t have that option.”
This geographic isolation arguably makes St. Matthew the most remote place in the United States. “It is literally in the middle of nowhere,” Romano states. “But even here in the wilderness is the touch of humanity.” Marine debris washes up on the beaches and a World War II Coast Guard station has 55-gallon drums leaking all over the site. Servicemen released reindeer, which proliferated over the island before eating themselves out of house and home. They died off by the 1980s, but St. Matthew’s vegetation is still recovering. “It’s remote,” says Romano, “but even the most remote places in Alaska have been touched and negatively impacted.”
Wandering through knee-deep cottongrass, I find it hard to believe anyone has been here before us. Taking a seat on a rocky knob, I soak in the chirps and squeaks of the pudgy rodent choir. A vole pops out of its burrow a short distance away. Sitting back on its chubby haunches, whiskers twitching, it launches into a solo performance backed by a symphony of wind, gurgling water, and wailing gulls. Then in a blink of the eye it vanishes down its burrow. I leave the tundra behind and climb back into my Zodiac, the serenade of the voles still singing in my ears.