by Bill Benner
Well, I did it. Or, should I say, we did it, since my Staten Island birding buddy Joe Wicinski was with me through the whole adventure. We took advantage of the last opportunity (for a while? forever?) to do the Ultimate Hard-core Lister U.S. Birding Trip--Attu! The following report details our experiences on Attu from May 10-May 25, as well as a couple of days in Anchorage prior to going to Attu. For a much broader overview of what a trip to Attu is like, definitely check out the website for Attour, Inc. (the only way you can get to Attu is with them; I have no connection with the company etc. etc.). Their website is at www.attu.com. If you click on the spot that says "1998 trip reports direct from Attu", you can read detailed accounts of what was happening there this spring, posted every few days and archived there. I have read them a while ago, but I won't refer back to them until I've finished this trip report, so that I won't cloud my reminiscences with any facts.
Attu is the furthest westward island in the U.S. Aleutian chain. It is the largest of a small group of Aleutian Islands called the Near Islands, and is about 40 miles long by 12 miles wide. Westward from Attu are the Commander Islands, part of Russia, and west of them, Siberia. The area of the island occupied by the Coast Guard and visited for a few weeks each year by us birders is at the eastern end of the island, in the only fairly extensive flattish area--the rest of Attu is pretty mountainous. Attu is much closer to Asia/Siberia than to North America proper, and so it gets both regular Asian migrants in small numbers (e.g. Brambling) as well as numerous (in my experience! see below...) Asian vagrants. Hence its attraction to ABA listers--it is a great place to add large numbers of life birds to your ABA list, even if you have birded most other places in North America.
For the past 20+ years, Attu has had a 4-fold increase in human population for about 3 or 4 weeks in May/early June when the birders descend (literally); otherwise, only about 35 or so, now down to 20, Coast Guard personnel live there for the other 48 or 49 weeks. Most years, there is one 3-week birding trip to Attu, and 60 or so birders go as a group and bird for 3 weeks, then leave the island to the Coast Guard and the Sea Otters. This year, for the second time (they also did it in 1992), Attour ran two 2-week trips back to back, instead of one 3-week trip. Great for me and Joe, because we couldn't possibly take off all of the time necessary to go for 3 weeks (it would mean almost 4 straight weeks away from work, what with travel and all). Also: the Coast Guard is there because they run a Loran station there--which is scheduled to be dismantled in the year 2000. No more Coast Guard means no more runway maintenance. Meaning, no more planes landing on Attu. Meaning, no more birding trips. So, we decided we best get there while the gettin was good, and so a year and a half ago we sent in our $100 deposit and said "Let's do it!"
Part of the adventure of going to Attu was Getting Ready. EVERYTHING that you need on Attu has to be flown there--and just think about all of the everythings that means, when you are running a several-week trip for 70 or 80 people. The things that you need to bring yourself are mostly clothes. That meant, we had to outfit ourselves for a couple of weeks of cool-to-cold, probably rainy weather, possible including snow, definitely windy, and water and mud underfoot as well--all while staying under 40 lbs. of baggage, including carry-ons! So, we spent lots of time pre-trip finding out about and ordering obscure (to us) plastic clothing, and then obsessively packing and re-packing and weighing this or that and trying to compact and discard an ounce or two here or there while still bringing everything we needed. It was fun, actually, and contributed to the mounting excitement as the weeks went by and the Big Day approached.
Well--let me step back a bit from this rambling, away from Attu, since we didn't go there until a few days into our trip.
We left Newark Airport in the afternoon and arrived in Anchorage the evening of Thursday 7 May. It doesn't get dark in Anchorage until 10:30pm or so then (Anchorage Daylight Time was 4 hours behind Eastern Daylight Time, so we were tired but very keyed up). So, after picking up our rental car at the airport, we dropped our stuff at the motel (West Coast International--a very pleasant place, somewhat expensive, but I think all Anchorage hotels are in the summer season, and they were very accommodating about last minute schedule changes, late arrivals for dinner, etc.). We then went out to bird around Lakes Hood and Spenard, which are right across the street from the motel. Actually, we saw our first life bird before we even got to the motel--MEW GULL, inshore on the lake, along with some Greater Scaup. We spent the next hour or so slowly working our way around the lakes, trying to avoid dead-end roads and private property, and only having to backtrack once or twice. We were totally awed at being in Alaska (our first time) and at the beautiful snow-covered mountains which surround the bowl in which Anchorage sits. It was a sunny evening and some pleasant birding, with good looks at some American Wigeon and a few other waterfowl. We did spend a little time trying to figure out a couple of distant singing passerines--Dark-eyed (Slate- colored, surprisingly to us) Junco and Am. Robin, and had great looks at more Mew Gulls, our lifer for the day. Went to bed, ready to get up early for a day birding on our own in the Anchorage area.
Our Anchorage birding plans were made with the excellent and very helpful advice of Dr. Dave, a local birder as well as field trip leader for Attour, who took us around on our second birding day in Anchorage. We got an early start this first morning, beginning our day at the Westchester Lagoon. This great birding spot is located on the water on the north (Knik) Arm, which forms the northwest border of the city. Tides here are tremendous, some of the highest and lowest in the world. When the tide is out, as it was that first morning, there are enormous expanses of mud; when it's in, there is a very narrow strip along the shoreline. With the tide out, we saw many shorebirds, but some of them a long way off. Highlights included Hudsonian Godwits, most in beautiful breeding plumage; Short-billed Dowitchers; and displaying Lesser Yellowlegs, calling and circling incessantly above the shoreline. We also saw a number of other nice birds there, including Black- billed Magpie (a life bird for Joe), Bonaparte's Gulls, and Arctic Terns, as well as some waterfowl--Green-winged Teal, Am. Wigeon, and Red-necked Grebes in beautiful breeding plumage.
Next stop was Elmendorf Air Force Base. We had no trouble getting in--had to just sign in at the gate on Boniface Parkway, and they asked if 8 hours would be enough time!--and then proceeded to Six Mile Lakes, using the direction that Dr. Dave had given us. Once we were away from the developed area, the base was extremely scenic with lots of birds. At one stop we were surrounded by several singing Varied Thrushes, their haunting single notes fluting out over the spruce glades, when a small group of White-winged Crossbills flew in and landed in a spruce next to the road and quietly fed. Upper Six Mile Lake gave a breathtaking view, under blue skies with puffy white clouds, of a distant snow-capped peak framed in the center of the lake. And within a moment or two of our arrival, while we were still taking in the beauty, an adult Bald Eagle flapped into view at the far end of the lake and soared towards us and then right overhead--a perfect Alaska picture. Other species seen in this general vicinity included Gray Jay, Northern Harrier, Harlan's (Red-tailed) Hawk, Common Loon, many winnowing Common Snipe, and lots of Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers.
After we left the base, we then headed south on Route 1 towards Portage, since we wanted to see the glacier there, as well as do some birding along the way. Our first stop was about a dozen or so miles south, at the tiny ball field on the right and the Brown Bear Lodge (right name?) on the left. We pulled off and walked back to the the bridge and then looked down under the bridge, where we soon spotted Joe's life--Dippers! Great birds, very entertaining.
Our next stop took us a bit out of the way, up to the left into the Girdwood/Aleyska ski area. Here is the northernmost rainforest on earth. And, not to disappoint us, it was raining. We spent a couple of hours there, first looking around for the right streets, then parking next to a friendly local gardener's house, where we surrounded by hundreds of buzzing and shreee- ing Pine Siskins. We then walked into a wet, mossy woods, where we saw, and heard, more White-winged Crossbills, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Boreal Chickadee (me only), and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The best bird, though, appeared like a streak and was gone from a feeder just outside the forest on our way out--Rufous Hummingbird! We waited patiently under a dripping spruce across the street, and sure enough, it soon reappeared and gave us great looks, a stunning male. Quite an amazing sight for us, surrounded by snow drifts and cold misty rain and brooding spruces and watching this sprite zip from house to house, feeder to feeder.
Feeling very successful, we drove the rest of the way to Portage, sandwiched as we rode between spectacular cliffs on the left, and Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains on the right. We had been told to watch for Beluga Whales in the water on the right, but the wind was extremely strong, and too many whitecaps made white-whale-watching impossible. We were luckier with Dall Sheep--one of the turnouts we pulled off into was right underneath a small group of sheep in the rocks above, and gave us great looks, even though we had to hide behind the car to stay out of the wind! The Portage Glacier itself was interesting but WINDY, cloudy, and wet, and since the visitor's center was closed, we didn't linger for long. The most amazing thing to me was the ice itself--some of it was the most incredible, arresting blue color. Those of you who have seen arctic or antarctic ice must already know about this, but I was very amazed. What is the phenomenon that actually traps blue light in that way?
We added only a couple of new species in Portage and on the way back--Northern Shoveler, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Belted Kingfisher, Barrow's Goldeneye, "Blue" Goose. The best birds, again, were the Rufous Hummingbirds which entertained us from 2 feet away at the feeders on the other side of the window while we sat and ate our lunch in the cafe in Portage (great homemade pie for dessert). On the way back, we stopped at Potter's Marsh, a great wetland just south of Anchorage. The best new bird there--Sandhill Crane, another lifer for Joe. Back to Anchorage for some R & R--but with a side trip that evening to a local Northern Goshawk nest! Beautiful views of a stunning, awesome raptor.
Today we had another day's birding in Anchorage, this time as part of our Attour package, on a one-day pre-Attu Anchorage birding trip. In the morning we went to some of the same places we had visited the day before--Westchester Lagoon, where we added Common Redpoll, Merlin, and Violet-green Swallow, and the Richardson Army and Elmendorf Air Force Bases. There, we were taken to see a spectacular Boreal Owl in a nest box, where we got good looks via a mirror above the box! Also added in the vicinity were Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Pipit, White-crowned Sparrow, and Rusty Blackbird.
Next stop was Hillside Park, where we all got great looks at Three-toed Woodpeckers, Boreal Chickadees, Gray Jays, Brown Creepers, and seemingly dozens of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. After that, it was a drive to the Chugach State Park, on the eastern edge of Anchorage. This was by far the most memorable part of the day. It began snowing lightly as we were headed up the side of the mountain, and was snowing more heavily as we arrived in the parking lot. Our goal here was Willow Ptarmigan--for me, the only other lifer I was likely to see in Anchorage besides Mew Gull, since the Bohemian Waxwings I had been hoping for did not seem to be around this year. We started out on the trail heading into the park, and the snow kept coming down. Along with the rising wind, and the fairly deep snow already on the ground, this made for some pretty wintery birding! at least, compared to the robin's-nest birding I had been doing a couple of days before in early May on Long Island.
Well, the best was yet to come. Dr. Dave split us up and had us circle around and down towards the willows in a stream bottom WAY down in the valley ahead of us. In the blowing snow, and falling in snow sometimes almost up to my waist (and I am 6'4"!), I plowed my way down the hillside, and avoided falling through the snowdrifts into the creek itself (which was pretty well hidden under the snow). But--it was all worth it, because soon after, the other party up ahead stirred up a pair of WILLOW PTARMIGAN, who put on a great show for us, and eventually flushed and called as well. One life bird I definitely feel like I earned! and will never forget. The trudge back up the hill was much lighter than it would have been otherwise.
Wet, cold, but happy, we stopped at Potter's Marsh on the way home--and got good looks at our first Moose on the way there!--but the wind was blowing too hard to even get out of the van, let alone do any birding. We added Canvasback to the list, but not much else. No sign of the cranes from the day before. So, we had a fairly early day of it, and then back to the hotel, where we met that evening for our pre-Attu dinner. The next morning it was luggage weigh-in, then off to Attu!
Well, the rest of this trip report will have to take a somewhat different format. I can't go day-by-day and blow-by-blow, for several reasons: I have procrastinated so long writing this that I can't remember day-by-day, is the most important one. Also, the days on Attu can start to run together, especially when you visited Henderson Marsh and walked all the way to Lake Elwood and Barrel Canyon and back 4 or 5 different times! Finally, it can start to seem like more of the same-old same-old if I describe things that way for too long. Please--those of you who are reading this and were there, bear with me if I get things a bit mixed up. I will try to at least get the birds straight, and feel free to correct me if I don't.
I will try to focus, then, on the life birds for each day. I'm sure my ramblings will get me to discussing most of the relevant stuff sooner or later that way. If anyone has any specific questions about Attu, please ask! It was an experience I will never, ever forget, and one that I hope each of you gets to have.
First of all, let me gross everyone out by mentioning my gastrointestinal illness before I begin with the birds. It began with numerous trips to the john on the Reeve Aleutian Airways flight from Anchorage to Attu, via Adak, the morning of the 10th, while others were looking for albatrosses out the plane windows. It culminated with being up all night in the luxurious bathroom suite (!) on Attu the night of the 11th, so that the whole day of May 12th I spent in bed, feeling pretty much horrible. This is relevant only in that while I did go birding on Monday the 11th and for a little while on Wednesday the 13th (which was, luckily for me, our only "rain day" of the trip), my heart (or whatever) was not in it. It wasn't until Thursday or Friday that I really felt capable of extended journeys and all-day hard-at-it birding. Turns out I didn't miss much, thank goodness, but I doubt if I could have seen a Stellar's Sea-eagle at 30 paces on Tuesday. I lost almost 20 lbs on Attu, and I think 10 of it was in the first 2 or 3 days. Fortunately, I didn't apparently pass this particular disease on to anyone else, though that is not always the case on Attu, we found out. There is often a Typhoid Mary in the group, and by the time we left 2 weeks later many people were hacking and wheezing. Close contact in damp quarters is great for germs, I guess. Joe and I succumbed just as we were getting home, but we surivived (hopefully so did everyone else). That out of the way, on to the birds.
For anyone who has never been to the tundra, let alone Attu, everything is new. Certainly that was true for Joe and me when the plane landed on Attu around noon that day. There were a few familiar birds, though--Song Sparrows the size of thrushes, for one! Attu is treeless, except for a few stunted evergreens planted in the ruins of Navy Town. So, most of the birds there are tundra birds, and the first birds we saw were typical of that habitat--Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. The longspurs, "lappies" to Attuvians, are ubiquitious, abundant, and beautiful.
When you land on Attu, the first chore after deplaning is to stare wildly around at anything that's flying. The second chore is to help unload the luggage, or stand out of the way while it is being unloaded (actually that is supposed to come first...). After that's done, you start your trek to Base Camp, a mile or so from the airport, feeling snug and smug against the elements in your $1000 worth of new all-weather tundra gear. Every bird is a potential lifer of mega proportions, so everyone is looking feverishly at everything--almost all of which are lappies! It's great, though--the longspurs really are beautiful, in perfect spring plumage, as are the Snow Buntings. In fact, that is one of the many terrific things about birding on Attu--ALL of the birds are in beautiful spring plumage, including the shorebirds...everything. It's the best way to see them.
There was a lot of snow around when we got there--more than they'd had in any previous year, we were told. Virtually everything was snow-covered, down to sea level. This was to change over the course of our two-week stay, so that by the time we left the snow line had crept up the mountain slopes and the Snow Buntings had disappeared from our immediate area.
I saw 10 life birds that first day on Attu, and I didn't start birding until after noon! I think Joe may have seen even more than that. The first life bird that I must mention is WOOD SANDPIPER. I don't remember now the exact order for these lifers from this first day, but I do know that Wood Sandpiper deserves to be first on the Attu list. It is an elegant tringid, with slim, neat proportions, and I saw (at least!!) one every day on Attu (more on that later...). Fairly wary, so didn't allow for deliberate close approaches, but fond of little roadside meltwater pools, so often you could come up close to one and watch each other for a few heartbeats, or even a few minutes. I have many, many great memories of Attu; the common, quietly classy Woodies seem representative to me of the abundance of the Great Spring of 1998.
The next life bird was ROCK SANDPIPER. You don't have to go to Attu to see these, since they're probably common on the northern West Coast, but I had never seen one. I didn't see these guys every single day, but almost. Like I said before, one of the great things about spring birding on Attu is the breeding plumage of all the birds, and these sandpipers are very striking. They have a very distinctive call, too. They would often allow very close approaches.
TUFTED PUFFIN was one of my nemesis birds that I had missed in the Pacific Northwest. It was dead easy on Attu. Puffin Island is a breeding rock for these guys, just north of Casco Point, off the end of the east-west runway. When we got to Attu, there were almost no puffins to be seen there, but within a few hours, hundreds of them were wheeling and circling over Puffin Island. I think they arrived the same day as we did! Every day from then on, it was easy to see these striking black alcids bobbing in pairs or small groups in the waters around Puffin Island.
Another life bird seen right at the airport were some beautiful WHOOPER SWANS. We had been told before we arrived, with much excitement, about all of the birds that seemed to be around the airport, and on Attu in general, this exceptional spring. This species was one of those mentioned. It is one of the Attu specialties that can be very hard to find. In other years, folks have had to make an arduous journey to an adjacent valley to be able to see these huge swans. For us, though, this was an easy species, though not one I think we ever took for granted. The first few days, small groups of Whooper Swans were seen flying back and forth in the vicinity of the airport and Big Lake on several occasions--breathtaking against the snowy mountains. But the bird that we will all remember is the (probably young) Whooper Swan that spent the entire 2 weeks we were there on a small meltwater pond near the east-west runway. Every day we would ride quietly past, taking a quick look, being careful not to spook him so that the second group would have a chance to see him. And what happened? He took off into the sunset while we all were standing watching, literally AS the plane with the next group was landing on the runway!! I sure hope he didn't go as far and as permanently as he seemed to be going, and that the second group got their life Whooper Swan too.
The next couple of life birds were seen along Casco Cove. Base Camp sits on the south shore of Casco Cove, and you have to ride west then north along the cove every day from Base to get to almost any of the other birding sites. Only Murder Point, South Beach, and Big Lake lie east and south of Base, and you generally walk to those places. Base Camp is a gloriously scenic spot (as long as you have your back to the building!), with the mountains of Gilbert Ridge north across the bay and Casco Bluffs to the west. Our route from the airport to Base Camp this first afternoon took us south and east along the edge of the cove.
One stake-out bird that was feeding in the kelp along the cove shoreline was a BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL near Base Camp. What a great bird--very active, very pretty, great looks--unfortunately wagtails seemed to me to be fairly wary and flighty also, so despite long looks, I never felt like I was able to watch them for quite as long as I would have wished. A great life bird, though. The two life water birds seen in the Cove that afternoon and evening were RED-FACED CORMORANT and YELLOW-BILLED LOON. Both Pelagic and Red-face Cormorant occur on Attu, but they are fairly easily separable once you know what to look for. The cormorants were great to see, another life bird, but for the remainder of the trip I did not pay much attention to them, sadly, after the first hour or so of sorting them out. The Yellow-billed Loon was hanging around in the Cove right at Lower Base, so it was easy to see daily for the first few days (after which it disappeared). Base Camp is actually two separate locations, by the way, one a few hundred yards up the hill from the other. Lower Base is the main "facility" ( I use the term loosely...), with showers, bunk rooms, and the main commons room; Upper Base is a smaller building used for cooking, eating, and as a dormitory for a few. Very difficult to describe the facilities on Attu if you haven't been there; very hard to forget if you have. Don't get me wrong--I loved it there; to me the primitive state of things on the island just made it seem that much wilder and more exciting.
Anyway, back to birds. Once we had dropped our gear off in our rooms, we went out the back door and up over the hummocks behind Lower Base and snuck up on Big Lake, for some good looks at some great birds. This lake is very close to Base, but apparently doesn't usually have too much on it. Not this year. Waiting patiently (most of us, anyway) in line for scope looks, I got good looks at my life COMMON POCHARD and SMEW. Other good birds on the lake, though not life birds for me, included Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Green- winged (Common) Teal, and Goosander, as well as Greater Scaup, Goldeneye, and Bufflehead.
I have always wanted to see a Smew. I think it must be the name. But also, the picture of the male always looks so interesting, that almost-all- white merganser look with those lines of black on the face. There were several Smews in one group on Big Lake (2 males and 3 females is what I am remembering), and we had plenty of time to see them well. The leaders made sure that we all got good scope looks before anyone got too close, and we gradually moved a bit closer without flushing the birds.
This attention to birding ettiquette is one of the strongest messages that you have in your mind while you're on Attu, and one of my clearest impressions a couple of months later as well. The leaders are extraordinarily committed to making sure that every person sees every bird--and they pull it off, almost without exception. No one goes birding anywhere in the morning without a leader, so that birds are not flushed from un-birded habitat before a leader gets to sit on them for others to see. (We violated this rule once, unwittingly, trying to catch up to a leader, and we were even more careful never to do it again.) Also, no one moves closer to a bird until it is certain that everyone ON THE ISLAND, not just in the vicinity, has seen it, if they want to. (I also came close to violating this rule once, too, but my ever-calm, easy-going friend Joe restrained me.) Leaders would routinely stay and spend the whole day with a bird , while the rest of us went off looking for other things, just so that those who were farthest away could get there and see it. I found all of this a very pleasant way to bird--not a lot of pressure to have to be anywhere, with good chances to see most everything. And good for the birds too, I think; not a lot of flushing and scaring up of birds, most of the time (though there's a snipe that might argue with that :). So, that's nine life birds for the day. The final lifer was one of those questionable looks that you argue with yourself about afterwards--should I count it or not? We were taken to a grassy area near Pratincole Beach (very close to Base Camp, on Casco Cove), and flushed a Starling-sized fawn-colored bird with widish wings with a white trailing edge. SKY LARK, but flying away from me and then down into the grass. I saw what I was supposed to see, but, not the world's greatest look. I'd have counted it, if I didn't see another. But fortunately, I saw Sky Larks on 4 different days, sometimes extremely well. In fact, I was with Mike Toochin's group in the meadows near Big Lake and Murder Point one day when we had a Sky Lark first sit up for great looks only a couple of dozen yards away, then actually go up singing into the sky, then come lower and circle slowly around us several times before dropping again into the grass. One of the many, many times on Attu when I saw one of the leaders shaking his head in disbelief. "It's not supposed to be like this," was something we would get accustomed to hearing.
I saw 4 life birds on this Monday, our first full day there. But, I don't remember very much about the day itself--my illness. The birds, though, were great! and I was to see each of them numerous times during our stay on Attu.
The first was LONG-TOED STINT. These are wonderful little shorebirds, and in my experience they are abundant on Attu! (True this year; not usually, though...). They were in bright, beautiful breeding plumage, and being probably the brightest overall of the peep anyway, were quite handsome. They have a very upright and long-legged look, for peep, and I felt very fortunate to see enough of them to be able to recognize them at a glance after a few days.
The second lifer of the day was BRAMBLING. This is a bird I expected to see on Attu, since it is a regular migrant there in small numbers. But it was no less welcome a sight for that. I have a special fondness for fringillid finches, actually, and one (impossible, I think) goal of mine would be to see all of the fringillid finches in the world someday. Their bright plumages; their wandering and erratic nature; their habit of flying around in tinkling flocks, landing right near you and giving you excellent looks one minute and then flying off and away then next--I like everything about them. This species seemed especially fond of snow edges, which is where Mike Toochin told us to watch for them. He was right; they loved the edges where the snow was melting, exposing seeds from last autumn. Both males and females were very colorful, black and white and soft orange.
The last two lifers of the day were seen together, in Massacre Bay, from the bridge at the mouth of Henderson Marsh. They were ANCIENT and KITTLITZ' MURRELETS. Marbled Murrelets were also in the Bay, though I had seen these before. These three species were usually present in the Bay, and we would always take a look when going past. It was very interesting how the overall abundance as well as relative abundance of the three species would change from day to day. Ancient Murrelets seemed to be consistently the most common, or at least the most visible. Marbleds were always in pairs, it seemed, perhaps more so than Kittlitz', though my memory is not so good about that. These last two, and especially the Marbleds, were the only species I can recall on Attu that were often not in breeding plumage. In fact, I don't remember seeing any Marbleds in breeding plumage at all; instead, they were usually identifiable in the distance by the overall white look of their winter dress. Great to see, in any event.
This was the only day of the trip that it rained (and snowed!) so hard that birding was basically cancelled for the day. (Well, almost the only rain day, but we'll get to that...) Fortunately for me, since I was still recovering from my bout with cholera or whatever I had. Despite the rain, though, in the early afternoon some of us went out to Big Lake and Murder Point (which are places to walk to; everywhere else you ride your bike--not good in the pouring rain). Because of that trip along Big Lake, I did get a life bird this day--ROCK PTARMIGAN. Excellent looks at a stunning pair of birds, in the rocks (naturally) just about at eye level for me. The dark feathering on the males of this Aleutian race is almost black--very beautiful. I saw Rock Ptarmigans several other times, once along Casco Bluffs just a short distance from Base Camp, but I would not consider them "easy" birds to find on Attu.
The Big Destination on Attu, the place that is the furthest away and the most work to get to, is Alexai. It must be 6 or 7 miles one-way from Base to the East Tip of Alexai Point, maybe even further; people told me exactly how far, but I forget. One group of young athletes had already gone there on 5/12, the day I was sick, biking through snowdrifts a good part of the way! I was not quite up for that yet, and so the Bill/Joe team decided to spend this day birding only as far as Gilbert Ridge, which is on the way to Alexai, but not as far.
I already mentioned that the way you get to all of these places on Attu is by bicycle. Bikes were randomly assigned our first day there by picking numbers from a hat and then matching them to one of the many bikes on the "lawn" outside of Lower Base. My bike turned out to be a brand-new bright blue mountain bike with many, many gears (not that useful on Attu...) but with great traction-grabbing tires and a fairly comfortable seat. Biking on Attu is an adventure in itself, especially if, like me, you haven't spent much time on a bike in the past, oh, say, 20 years. I learned to love my bike and hate my bike. It definitely cut down on the time it took to get places. But spending a lot of time "in the saddle" took some getting used to for the first few days; they suggest bringing seat padding, and Joe (the smart one of the team) did (I didn't). The terrain is very rough--mostly loose gravel roads, meltwater ditches, and sometimes snowdrifts. The only smooth sailing was on the runways--which were great, except that another cardinal rule on Attu is that no matter which way you are bicycling on the runway, the wind will always be blowing in your face.
On this day, as I said, Joe and I went with Dr. Craig, one of our favorite leaders, to Gilbert Ridge. On the way around Casco Cove I saw my first life bird--GREY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH in the rocks along Casco Bluffs. I was very, very happy to see these birds. I have already mentioned how much I like finches, and these guys are so different and striking. VERY large, also. I would see these on a number of occasions during the next 2 weeks, but I almost never passed up the chance to stop and look at them again.
The next life bird was just a bit further along Casco Cove--a female RUSTIC BUNTING along the edge of Tattler Creek. I was very happy to see her, too, because everyone else had seen one the day I was sick, and I was afraid I wouldn't get to see one at all. This is one of those Asian species that I think are seen many, but not all, years, and sometimes only one or two birds. Little did I know that we would be kicking up FLOCKS of these birds in a few days! The buntings are an interesting group, very much like our New World Sparrows. The males of this species have a very pretty black and white head pattern, and are otherwise a warm reddish-brown. Very handsome little birds.
Another life bird that I have recorded for this day is PACIFIC GOLDEN- PLOVER, seen from the Henderson Bridge. Frankly, I don't remember seeing it there! but I guess I believe my records. Actually, my good memories of this species are seeing them on different occasions along the airport runways, while I was riding slowly along, headed to or from somewhere. The males were in striking breeding plumage, incredibly handsome birds. I remember seeing 6 or 8 birds in small groups along the runways several different times--wonderful to see.
But the next life bird I remember like it was yesterday. We biked to the beginning of Gilbert Ridge, and then left the bikes (gladly!) at the edge of an extensive snowfield, figuring that they would be more hindrance than help from then on. Gilbert Ridge is apparently a famous place for passerines, since they can feed there relatively sheltered from the wind, and the south- facing slopes are warmer (I assume). To maximize our chances of seeing things, we spread out in a line and worked our way forward, a technique we used constantly on Attu. My usual routine was to head out toward one end of the line; I am tall (6'4") and I tended to feel like it was easier for me take "giant steps" and keep up the line through rougher footing than it would be for some others. On this occasion, I was on the beach, with one or two others. We flushed a bird from the beach just ahead of us, and I saw immediately that it had yellow wing bars. "Yellow wing-bars!", we shouted to Craig. The bird circled around and landed in a little willow up on the ridge (a willow that turned out to be a favorite spot of his over the next few days). Craig trained the scope on him, and triumphantly announced, "ORIENTAL GREENFINCH!" A life bird even for him! Not the first time one has been seen on Attu--but there haven't been many. We all got excellent looks, and actually fairly prolonged ones, since we all had to wait while the rest of the people on the island dashed out to see it (everyone did). I was very happy with that bird--I love finches.
The next lifer of the day came later on. We did not go farther along Gilbert Ridge, but instead meandered back through Navy Town and back in the direction of Base. Someone in the group flushed a YELLOW WAGTAIL--and once again I got flying looks which were adequate to identify the bird, but not great. It was while a group of us were trying to sneak up on this bird that the call came in that there was another rare bird, this time on Navy Town Beach.
Well, we dumped the Yellow Wagtail--I was to see many of these, it turned out--and dashed to Navy Town. There, Steve (another great leader--easy-going, always cheerful despite his bad cold, and an excellent birder) got us pointed in the right direction, and we went down on the beach and looked up under the pilings of the old pier, to see a DUSKY THRUSH! Another outstanding bird--two in one day! This bird is a Turdus thrush, similar in size and shape to our American Robin but much more intricately, and beautifully, marked. Unlike many of the other marvelous rarities we saw on Attu, this bird really was a one-day wonder, not seen again after that. We watched him feeding under the pier, and sometimes out in the full sunlight!, until we were sated. A more perfect birding day could not be desired. But, then came tomorrow.....
Actually, the day after tomorrow. The 15th was a nice birding day, which we spent mostly in Henderson Marsh, but I didn't see any life birds that day. Amazingly, I was on Attu for 2 weeks, and this was one of only a couple of days that I spent the whole day birding and did not see at least one life bird.
So, we skip to Saturday May 16th. THE Big Day, in my opinion; THE best day for birds ever in the history of spring trips to Attu, based on all I've been told and how things seemed afterward. While subsequent days were often great, I think that many of the birds we saw later were there because of this one amazing, glorious day.
It started with Joe's and my decision to make the big trip to Alexai. A number of people had been out there already, and they had been seeing some birds that we would very much like to see also. The day was blustery, and soon to get worse than that, but the wind continued to stream steadily out of the west-southwest, the best direction for Attu.
We left the bikes out at the same Oriental Greenfinch spot where we had stopped a couple of days before; it was still a bit too snowy to ride out to the bike drop at the base of Alexai Point. So, we had a long, long walk then, along Gilbert Ridge, past the Pyramid, the First Stacks, and then the Second Stacks (all landmarks along the way). We made our way out there in a very leisurely fashion, with Paul Sykes (an excellent birder and great leader to be in the field with) stopping frequently to scope the alcids on Massacre Bay (there were MANY that day). Joe and I had our eyes peeled ahead of us on the rocks, most of the time, hoping to see a large pale anseriform that others had seen during the past few days' trips to Alexai. Gulls fooled us several times. But, finally we lucked out--an EMPEROR GOOSE flushed from the rocks ahead of us and landed farther on up. Very wary, he flushed again when we got closer, but this time we got good looks in flight as he took off out over the Bay towards the West Tip of the point. A very stunning goose.
It was somewhere around the Second Stacks when it all began. It had been misty, kind of, for a good part of the morning, but it seemed like the weather was deteriorating to the point where it might actually rain--not a pleasant prospect. We had been looking forward to lots of passerines along Gilbert Ridge, but they did not materialize. We were somewhere between the Second Stacks and the Bike Drop at the base of Alexai when a report came over the radio--possible Olive-backed Pipit at Murder Point. The group at Murder Point included many folks who had been to Alexai already and seen some of the things we were hoping to see, and so they had stayed back for a lighter day today. Now it seemed that they were also going to see even more good birds! Briefly (very briefly) the thought went through my head (Joe's too I think) about going back--but no, we would see what we would see, and so be it.
Radio checks on Attu happen every half hour; the leaders all carry CB radios and report in to Base Camp on the half hour; Base then relays the info (on a much more powerful radio) to everyone in the field. A great system for getting the info out on what birds and birders are where. Of course, if any good birds are seen, it goes out over the radio immediately. Well, the Murder Point group soon had another Olive-backed Pipit! and then a Red-throated Pipit!! "Murder Point is the Center of the World!" came the report over the radio. The damp and gloom continued to gather around us.
But then, someone spotted a passerine up on the hillside. A pipit! But what kind?? "Red-throated", Paul called after looking at it, and after it unfortunately kept going upward and disappeared up over the top of the hill. I saw it, but I didn't get a very good look, and was feeling kind of resigned at this point. The best birds seemed to be on the other end of Attu. Oh well--onward and upward! I believe it was shortly after this, though, (but my memory is a litlle hazy here) that we saw my next lifer, another passerine, and a very satisfying bird--EYEBROWED THRUSH. This is another American Robin look-alike; amazing how uniformly shaped the Turdus thrushes seems to be, differing from one another in color and pattern, but almost always immediately recognizable as a member of that genus. This is another species that can be hard to find on Attu; I think they see them most years, but sometimes they have only one skulking bird and have to work hard to see it. Not this year!
We got up to the Base of Alexai, and the clouds were swirling, the wind was blowing, and it was wettish but not quite raining. And there were birds up here! First one, then another, then seemingly all around us! Pipits! Pipits EVERYWHERE!! Soon it was impossible to keep track of them all, to point them out to either a leader or each other. I saw my life OLIVE TREE- PIPIT, getting great looks at the distinctive and striking face pattern. I trained my binoculars on another pipit a bit further along and was staring at a beautiful, bright, full-breeding male RED-THROATED PIPIT. When I went to show somebody else, they were all looking here and there at their own birds!
It soon became one of the memorable birding spectacles of my life. FLOCKS of Wood Sandpipers were swirling out of the clouds, rising up from the ground in front of us, feeding and dashing along pool edges and then up and away again. Groups of Long-toed Stints. Eye-browed Thrushes; Rustic Buntings; Bramblings; and soon one and then several chunky, soft-colored passerines with large white wing patches--HAWFINCHES! Ah, those finches... We watched a large tringid-type shorebird, a COMMON GREENSHANK, circle down out of the swirling mist, land in front of us next to a pool, feed for a few minutes while we all got great looks, then circle back up into the clouds and away! Mack Smith, another great leader, soft-spoken and always helpful, looked at me and said quietly, "This is unprecedented."
It turns out things were the same everywhere on Attu--the Murder Point group, while no longer the center of the world, was also surrounded by pipits, and Eye-browed Thrushes, and shorebirds. Others would report similar large numbers of birds. For whatever meteorological reason (let's blame it on El Nino, shall we?), Attu experience a classic fallout of record-breaking proportions that day, and this in addition to the large numbers of birds already present. And we were to reap the benefits for days afterwards.
The weather actually improved somewhat as we made our way out to the tip of Alexai, but it was "too late" for many birds, now blown far off course and forced to rest a while on Attu before taking up migration again. Not so good for the birds, but good for us birders! But the day did brighten up slightly as we spent the next couple of hours first at the West and then along the beach to the East Tip. In fact, standing at the East Tip we were able to look north across the straits toward Aggattu (sp.?) (or was it Shemya?), anyway, the visible nearby Near Island, and see large white-headed, black-backed, long-winged soaring seabirds--LAYSAN ALBATROSS. Very good shore looks, the only looks like this we were ever to get at these birds. Amazingly gigantic birds; very satisfying to see.
We made our way slowly back towards Base Camp that evening, marvelling at our great day, unaware that more was yet to come. But, we also learned via radio contact that some other good shorebirds had been spotted closer to Base. So, on the way back we were treated to flyby looks at MONGOLIAN PLOVER along Gilbert Ridge (we were to see these beauties even better, and on the ground, on subsequent days), and also to leisurely scope views of feeding TEMMINCK'S STINTS in the corner of Casco Cove as it curves out into Casco Point. This spot was a sort of shorebird mecca; it was here that we also saw up to 3 Mongolian Plovers on later days, and other good shorebirds besides. The Temminck's Stints were very neat, grayish stints, very recognizable because of their odd almost-lack-of color. This was another species I would see more of here and there over the next few days, and another one that I became fairly proficient at identifying even in flight, or with brief looks.
The extent of the migration spectacle we had witnessed this day was made quite clear by the results of the evening bird tally. Every night about 9pm the leaders, and most of the rest of us, would gather in the commons room and go throught the checklist, reporting not only species sighted, but also adding up the numbers seen by each leader into a total number for the day. This is the way it is always done on Attu, it seems, so it has the virtue of consistency over time.
The tally this night was record-shattering. I, stupidly enough, did not right down actual numbers, but only checked off the birds I myself had seen. Joe, on the other hand, kept better records. But my memory is of HUNDREDS of Wood Sandpipers, and DOZENS (hundreds too??) of pipits, Eyebrowed Thrushes, and Long-toed Stints. All of these numbers were unheard-of; it felt like we were in exactly the right place at the right time--a very nice feeling.
Only one life bird this day, but that in no way reflects the birding. It was just that I had seen many of the birds already, so that swarms of Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed Stints, Eyebrowed Thrushes, and Rustic Buntings were becoming commonplace. (Not really! at least, never taken for granted. Maybe they were everywhere, but we knew how rare that was....)
Anyway, today was Murder Point and South Beach day for Joe and I, with our leader Mike. I have already mentioned a couple of great things about this day--A Skylark skylarking in circles around us; a flock of about 8 or 10 Yellow Wagtails, feeding in the tundra grass in front of us on a hill--it was an awesome birding day. The totals at the night's tally rivaled, and in some cases surpassed, those of the previous day.
Pipits were one of the reasons. There were pipits EVERYWHERE. Singing from the woodpiles next to the outhouses; hopping up and flying away underfoot whenever you walked in the tundra; flushed from the road walking up to Upper Base for meals...it was amazing. The vast majority of these were Olive-backed Pipits, but there were some Red-throated Pipits as well. But it was in the beginning of the day, walking with Mike along Pratincole Beach, that I saw my life bird for the day. One of the pipits we flushed was different; Mike knew that right away, and I knew what he meant pretty quickly--a much more buffy bird, with black-and-white streaking on the back. Shortly we were able to get clear scope views of it--PECHORA PIPIT. This is a very good bird, even for Attu. Amazingly, I was to see several of these, on three different days and in several locations. Pipits and Eyebrowed Thrushes, along with the finches, made up the bulk of the passerine fallout. We were surrounded, and thrilled by them, for days.
Speaking of finches, I have to say another word about Hawfinches. We found another Hawfinch this day with Mike, feeding along snow edges at the base of the bluffs along South Beach. I have to say that Hawfinches just may have been my favorite bird on Attu (though I liked others too much to make that an unqualified statement). I got very good binocular and scope looks of this bird on South Beach, but I actually saw Hawfinches for the next four days in a row. It was the last of these sightings that was the best--a cream and pinkish-brown bird in gorgeous crisp plumage, feeding along the road edge probably 15 or 20 feet in front of me, for as long as I cared to look. One of those times when we were headed back to Base on our bikes in the evening, strung out so that hardly anyone else was in the immediate vicinity, and we could watch the bird at our leisure. It was such a beautiful, beautiful bird, softly pastel-plumaged, huge bill, feeding in the evening light--I'll never forget it.
This was another one of those days that made us, and the leaders, shake our amazed heads and wonder, "What could possibly be next?!" I had already been on Attu for a week and had seen 31 life birds, about what I had anticipated for the entire trip--and this despite a couple of days of little or no birding. But this turned out to be yet another of those amazing days that seemed to come one after another this year.
Joe and I decided to bike to go towards Gilbert Ridge again--a good destination, far enough so that you weren't really far away from anywhere (except South Beach) if a good bird was seen elsewhere, with plenty of great places to go past on the way. Also, we wanted to see a couple of species that others had reported but that we had not yet seen.
I was riding along behind Leader Steve, along Navy Town and then Debris Beach, when he suddenly jumped off his bike and looked at a bird sitting on a post next to the beach, almost right next to us. A NORTHERN WHEATEAR! This is a species that is not supposed to be on Attu; it is a migrant to Alaska, true, but it apparently migrates through Siberia, on a route that doesn't normally take it anywhere near Attu. It has been recorded there before, but not very often. Anyway, it was great to see--a life bird for me, and one that I had chased here in the Northeast several times, unsuccessfully. It gave us fantastic looks, and then started flushing and working its way south along the beach.
Feeling like we had got the morning off to a fantastic start, we kept biking a bit further, and sure enough, checking out the edges near the Henderson River mouth, we found one of the species we had been hoping to see today--COMMON SANDPIPER. This was an ABA life bird for me, though I had seen it in other parts of the world. This was another species that was present in small number for the rest of our stay, reported almost every day.
We continued on to Gilbert Ridge to try for our other target bird, which we soon found in the same general region where it had been seen the day before--a GRAY WAGTAIL. This is the rarest of the wagtails on Attu, and you need at least a decent look to separate it from Yellow. The black throat, plain gray back, and yellow rump in flight, are diagnostic. This species, and maybe wagtails in general, seemed very fond of beaches, and especially of those areas where little rivulets of fresh water ran down on to the beach. This was the area that the bird had been frequenting the day before, and we found it again in the same place today.
While we were off chasing wagtails, Joe Swertinski, ace birder who always seemed to get to the best birds faster than anyone else, no matter how far away he was, found another great bird. While following the Northern Wheatear down the beach toward Navy Town, he spotted a little gray, spotted, flycatching bird. It was feeding amongst a jumble of rocks right on the beach, and was to spend hours there that day, and then never seen again. We raced back from Gilbert Ridge, and got good looks at our life GRAY-SPOTTED FLYCATCHER. A great bird for us to see, because it was about a week early, and one of those species that we could have easily missed. In fact, we had been told by some birders before we went to Attu that we were likely to miss a number of things, and that we going to be there too early, and that we should have signed up for the second two weeks, etc. etc. Not in 1998, it turns out, though the second group did just as well as we did.
The last life bird of the day was one that we had hoped to see at Alexai (not that we were complaining about our trip to Alexai!), but it hadn't been there that day. Turns out that this bird had moved from Alexai to Puffin Island, a routine that it seems to have every year. This individual has been seen for each of the last 5 years on Attu, shuttling back and forth between Alexai and Puffin Island, where it could often be seen resting up on the rocks. We had missed it there a couple of times already, but today it turned out to be swimming in the water right next to us with a group of Common Eiders and Harlequin Ducks while we were near Puffin Island. It was a male SPECTACLED EIDER, probably the most often-counted individual Spectacled Eider on the planet, but no less handsome for all of that.
I haven't mentioned Harlequin Ducks before this, and that is a mistake. Harlequins have always been a favorite, and are definitely Joe's favorite ducks. And Attu is the place to see them. They are everywhere! Every cove, everywhere you look in the water, Harlequin Ducks. You get very used to them quickly, but it is one of the astonishing things about Attu that even the "trash birds" are such beautiful and otherwise-rarely-seen (by me, anyway) birds like Harlequin Ducks and Lapland Longspurs. What a great place. And while they aren't birds, the Sea-otters deserve mention here too. They are also ubiquitous in the waters of Attu, lounging or cracking shells on their bellies. West Coast people are probably used to these guys, but I loved watching them all the time.
There was one other most excellent bird seen today, by about half of the people on the island. Joe and I elected to be among the other half who decided not to chase this bird, but to wait to try to find it the next day. A sad mistake, since it was not seen again, and so it became the only Asian rarity seen on Attu during our stay that we ourselves did not see (which is an amazing thing, really, that we saw everything else!) The call came in about the bird just before dinner, at 7pm or so, and we were tired, and Joe had chores, and we decided to wait. Oh well. The bird? Oh, just a Green Sandpiper, a ho-hum ABA Code 5 species that has only been seen on Attu a couple of times before. Have we gotten over it? Sure. Sort of.
Yet another great day. (Gets monotonous, doesn't it?) Four life birds again today, despite all that we had already seen. We have already mentioned the Green Sandpiper; a huge group of us (about half of those on the island) went out to Henderson Marsh today hoping to see this bird. And, in my opinion, we may even have seen it flying in the distance--but who would know?? The marsh was absolutely full of, literally, hundreds of Wood Sandpipers. Green and Wood Sandpipers look very, very similar (apparently; I wouldn't know...), with the Green being darker backed with a more contrasty white rump. But with dozens of Wood Sanpipers flushing or feeding at a time, I think a Green Sandpiper could have been overlooked easily. Or, just as likely, it had moved on; we will never know. But, fortunately, the other rarity that had been seen the night before with the Green Sandpiper was still around, and we soon found them--three SPOTTED REDSHANKS in outstanding jet-black breeding plumage. We got excellent and very satisfying looks at these birds, and indeed would see them for the next several days. These three birds seemed to be a trio that I remember always seeing together, feeding or flying.
Scanning through the marsh, slogging through West Henderson, flushing Wood Sandpipers and more Wood Sandpipers--this was something we spent many days doing, Joe and I, but I never got tired of it. I was happy to go somewhere else besides Henderson after a few days of it, but I still enjoyed every minute of it. Wood Sandpipers! I will never forget them.
It was later on this day, though, that my sharp-eyed buddy Joe spied a large shorebird out in the marsh and asked in his quiet way, "Hey, what's that large shorebird out in the marsh?" Well, it was a BLACK-TAILED GODWIT, another outstanding life bird, and another amazing record for Attu. Not because we saw one Black-tailed Godwit; they have been seen on Attu before, maybe even with some regularity. No, the amazing thing about Black-tailed Godwits on Attu this year is that a couple of days later I was with a group of people watching TWENTY-THREE Black-tailed Godwits in a tight group right in front of us, feeding out in Henderson Marsh. I think this about doubles the number of Black-tailed Godwits ever seen in North America! I stood there looking at those birds, and thinking, you know, I am looking at as many Black- tailed Godwits in this one group as have been seen in all the North American records put together up until now. I have no idea if that is exactly true, but I don't think it's too far off. It was almost a sobering sight. At that moment, the abundance of this year's birding on Attu seemed overwhelming. "Don't ever come back," Steve said. "It's never like this. You'll be so disappointed."
But, the day was not over yet. Another call over the radio--Mike's group, on their way back from Alexai, had another good bird out near the Second Stacks. So, feeling glad that we were already at Henderson and not all the way back at Base Camp, we got on our bikes and pedalled and pushed and then walked out to the Second Stacks, there to see a magnificent male SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT hopping around on the other group's bikes, feeding in the trail. This is a plain-looking, smallish, thrush-like bird, until it turns and faces you and that flaming throat sparkles like its namesake gem. This was another of those birds that we were very glad to see and had thought we could easily miss, since again it was about a week earlier than usual.
And STILL the day was not over! Because as we got back to base camp that evening, we were herded out to the grassy area next to Pratincole Beach, just a quick 5 minutes from Base, where we formed a big circle. Everyone took one step forward, then another, then another...and soon a PINTAIL SNIPE flushed, fluttered, and dropped back down. After it did this a couple of times, it very conveniently landed right in front of me and a few others, with an unobstructed view for us. We got excellent looks, scope, binocular, and even naked eye. I then left, but the bird was very cooperative, and everyone eventually saw it extremely well. This is another bird that has only been recorded on Attu a couple of times before. What a day!
A slow day today--only two lifers! After the last couple of days, this seemed like more "normal" birding on Attu, but actually there were still very large numbers of shorebirds, pipits, thrushes, etc. around. The two life birds for me for the day were actually things that are around on Attu, at least most of the time, but are not always so easy to see.
Although the first one, I shouldn't say that about. It was actually very easy for me to see on this sunny morning. Sitting on the beach near the base of Brambling Bluff, eyes half closed, (probably half dead, poor thing), was a THICK-BILLED MURRE. This is the last of the six regularly-occurring Atlantic alcids that I had not seen, so thankfully it means no more mid-winter Northeast pelagics! (Unless I want to see Great Skua). I tend to get seasick... This poor bird, though; it was dubbed the Sick-billed Murre by those who saw it. I doubt its fate was a happy one.
The other life bird was not as easy to spot, another alcid, but at the other end of the island--HORNED PUFFIN. These guys nest, apparently, at or beyond Krasni Point, which is south of Base past Murder Point, past South Beach, past Blue Robin Canyon, etc. Sometimes, though, they come up "north" during the days and feed or rest in the cove along South Beach, and that's where I saw one today. This is a great place to go with a scope--not too far from Base, high up on a hill (Murder Point), and with great views to the southeast of the cove and the ocean beyond. Lots of excellent seabirds, but it was the scope look at this little guy that was the best thing for me today.
Unfortunately, I was the first of us to get the bird in the scope--facing directly away from us. I watched for a minute or so (longer than my turn, or courtesy, should have allowed), hoping he would turn around so that I could see that it was actually a Horned Puffin (the person who owned the scope had found and ID'ed the bird). He did turn--and flew off at the same instant, wings whirring madly. Very frustrating, because now this was the only bird that I had seen that my buddy Joe hadn't. Fortunately, several days later we went down to Murder Point again, this time in the rain, but we all got to see Horned Puffins, including Joe. Good thing--he told me afterwards that when I got back home I had been going to get a souvenir postcard with a Horned Puffin on it in the mail--every day, day after day....
Another one of those glorious Attu days! Waking up on Attu was a great feeling, every day, whether cloudy or sunny (it was sunny surprisingly often). The day is bright before you're up and stays that way till after bedtime. There's time for a shower and a leisurely breakfast, since birding doesn't start till 9am; there is no "dawn chorus" on Attu. Breakfast, and all the meals, were great, although we had pancakes every single morning (sometimes blueberry, though, a nice change). They had forgotten to load the eggs on the plane in Anchorage... I didn't always eat the pancakes, but I did always have an unholy mixture of granola, hot oatmeal, and grapefruit/mandarin oranges in syrup, all mixed together in a bowl--delicious! I never had it before or since, but writing this now I'm tempted; I bet it would bring back great memories.
Anyway, now that we've covered my eating habits--this particular day we went once again to Henderson Marsh with Leader Steve. We saw our first lifer fairly early that morning--a BEAN GOOSE that we first saw in Smew Pond and that then flew out to land in the middle of Henderson Marsh, giving fairly distant but readily identifiable scope views. This was an extremely wary bird--maybe because they are hunted? It had been seen in flight for a few days prior to today's finding, but today was the day most people got it for a life bird. But it would allow no approaches at all, flushing if it even caught sight of distant humans. We did see it in flight on later days as well, again stunning against the snow-covered mountains, with a very haunting call.
We tiptoed back out away from Smew Pond after getting our looks at the bird, so that others could get close and we would minimize noise and disturbance near the bird (the usual and very effective Attu method). Then, another call on the radio--big, long-billed shorebird at Barbara Point! We raced over there as quickly as possible, and soon were looking at our life FAR-EASTERN CURLEW. Turns out there were two, a male and a female, by bill length. At first it was difficult to see them well, since they were feeding down in the kelp on little islets just offshore, but fortunately for us they flew from islet to islet a couple of times, and so we all got diagnostic looks.
This was a great lunch spot. My usual lunch (in keeping with the dietary theme for the day) was crunchy peanut butter and red raspberry jelly on whole wheat, apples/oranges, sometimes fruit cocktail or applesauce, and candy bars and/or small bags of peanuts throughout the day. I ate a lot, I thought, but still kept losing weight--excessive exercise, I think. Oh, and Tang--can't forget the Tang. I lived on Tang, it seemed; I was always thirsty, and they had huge vats of Tang powder scattered around the buildings in handy places. I'd fill my water bottle with it in the AM, and then refill it from a handy stream during the day. This was another terrific thing about Attu. All of the water on Attu, except the oil-glistened stuff draining out of barrel- studded Henderson Marsh, is drinkable, and absolutely unbeatably the best water I have ever had. And I bet even the Henderson water would be a darn sight better than Long Island water.
Back to birds. Today was finally the day that one of the life birds that had eluded Joe and I almost since out arrival finally gave up the chase. While sitting in the vicinity of the Curlews, we were very near Puffin Island. And finally, finally, the SLATY-BACKED GULL who lives there came out on the top of the island long enough, and at the right time, for us to get a look. Others had seen this bird bathing right in front of them in the mouth of the Peaceful River, sitting out on the island, etc etc. Not us, despite our stopping to take a look whenever we were in the area. So, we were happy to get looks at that guy.
Not done yet for the day, though. We had a fairly leisurely afternoon, and were feeling content with our 3 life birds. About 5pm or so, we were thinking that it might be time to head back in the direction of Base for some rest before dinner. Then, another call on the radio, this time from that terrific leader James. Great Knot at the East Tip of Alexai! Paul Sykes, the leader we were with at that point, said right off that he was going to go for it--a life bird for him! So it wasn't much of a decision for me and Joe. We had decided after the Green Sandpiper that we were going to chase every rarity--so we went! Our big chase of the trip--a long, long, LONG bike ride along Gilbert Ridge, this time all the way to the bike drop. Lots of snow along the way, still, but you could push the bikes through the worst spots and sloggily (is that a word?) pedal through the rest. And still a LONG way from there to the East Tip, which is the furthest-away spot you can get to on Alexai Point.
But it was all worth it. Out there, in the evening light, in spectacular breeding plumage, was our life GREAT KNOT, a brilliantly spangled, showy shorebird, feeding in the kelp. Great Knot, great looks; who could ask for more? We also were entertained by an Arctic Fox (these introduced guys are common on Attu). We were near his den, apparently, and his response to that was to walk around sniffing and then peeing on everyone's packs, coats, etc. Cute.
A long ride back to Base, but we felt great (so to speak). And a nice hot dinner when we got back, despite the late hour! They are very good about that on Attu. Hot food even if the birds keep you out late. Walter, the cook, was outstanding. He even had hot vegetarian meals for those of us herbivores on the trip. A most excellent day overall!
This was a day with only one lifer, but I remember it as being a very, very pleasant day anyway. We spent the day birding with Steve, a really good, informative, easy-going leader. We birded Henderson Marsh (again!), and went all the way around Casco Point as well, something Joe and I hadn't done yet. This is a nice spot, especially out at the tip, where you can scan out over the Bay. This is supposed to be a good spot for Arctic Loon, but we didn't see any, not did we see any for the trip, though I think others might have.
Our one life bird was actually fairly early in the day, when it was cloudy, windy, misty, even rainy off and on. (Rainy "off and on" is common on Attu; raining on you and sunny up the runway is common, too, as is beautiful one minute and snowing the next. Invigorating!) The wet weather off the ocean, as well as the date (they arrive about now), sent a group of 5 ALEUTIAN TERNS flying over our heads while we were on the runways near the tower. Flight looks, but good looks just the same, and we also heard their distinctive call. Aleutian Terns were seen sporadically from here on out, now that they had arrived, though only once more by Joe and me. They apparently even nest on or near the runways.
This was the day of our scheduled departure. We had spent the day before birding along Gilbert Ridge, in Navy Town, and again to Murder Point, but didn't see any life birds. (One of only a very few days where this was true). The evening before, we had packed everything up, ready to depart for the airport on foot after breakfast the next morning.
We got up, and looked outside to see rain and fog. Hmmm..... Arrivals and departures on Attu are very weather-dependent. There is no control tower; they land if they can safely see to do so. What did "safely" mean? I heard all sorts of estimates, from 500 foot ceiling to 1 mile visibility to...who knows. All we knew was that it was pretty iffy. But I trudged out to the airport, feeling a peculiar mixture of anxiety (about the plane), sadness (to be leaving), and excitement (it had been such a great trip...). The plane had left Adak, we were told, so that meant they had hopes of landing. So, we stood out on the runway. Some of us looked here and there around at the closer areas, hoping for that one last lifer. Then, we heard it! The plane, approaching through the clouds, heard but not seen, getting louder, circling, heading away, growing fainter, fading away..... And then the Coast Gaurd guys coming out to turn the runway lights off!
Scrubbed. Back to Adak, for the plane. And then, luckily enough for those guys, out to the Pribilofs for the night! where they got a late night tour of some great alcid colonies and saw Red-legged Kittiwakes, too, I think. For us, it was back to Base. For me personally, it was great--I could be here another day; there was nothing I could do about it; more birding! I don't think some of the others were as happy, but, oh well. We got back to Base and unpacked our stuff again--most of it, anyway; the vultures we had left behind (some birders were there for the full 4 weeks) had picked our rooms clean of any stray pillows, etc. Then we had a hot lunch. Then, a lot of people sat around in the commons room looking dazed.
It was still raining, but what the heck! Joe and I and a couple of others, including two great, friendly women from MA with a scope, headed out to Murder Point, where Joe finally saw his Horned Puffins (thank goodness). I scoured South Beach from one end to the other, kicking up some Rustic Buntings, Yellow Wagtails, Long-toed Stints, and assorted other trash birds (ha!). But I didn't see any Grey-tailed Tattlers, which was something I had been hoping to see, or any Terek Sandpipers either, another bird on my wish list (talk about greedy, eh?). Turns out both of these species would be seen by the second group!
We got back to Base wet, cold, but feeling good. And what do you know, another life bird was waiting out at Casco Cove! We got on our bikes and raced out to that magic corner going out to Casco Point, and there, with a bit of searching, found our life BAR-TAILED GODWITS, a male and female. This is the spot where Joe had to restrain me from trying to get just a bit closer, while we waited for the rest of our group to catch up. He was right, and we all ended up getting very good looks, without flushing or even bothering the birds, as far as we could tell. Thank goodness for rain delays!
May 25 So, that's it folks, my rambling Attu tale. We departed uneventfully for Adak and Anchorage this AM, with a few lucky birders getting looks at Kamchatka (Mew) Gull at the runways before we left (not me though).
How would I sum it all up, in 10 words or less? As Mack Smith would say--UNPRECEDENTED!!!! One of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
As I said in the beginning, I have probably gotten some of this wrong, since it has taken me a few weeks, off and on, to write this, and the trip was almost 3 months ago now. I apologize if that's true, and will be happy to publically correct any mistakes that are pointed out to me. And as I also mentioned before, do check out www.attu.com. There are "trip reports" there, too, as well as lots of other great Attu info.
Oh, yes, I should mention the other cool bird on Attu this spring as well--the first North American record of Yellow-throated Bunting! We apparently missed this bird by only a few hours, sad to say. But how could I possibly complain?? The best trip ever on Attu--kind of hard to beat that.
Following are the trip lists, first for Anchorage, then for Attu. Life birds for me are in caps.
ANCHORAGE BIRD LIST:
|COMMON NAME||SCIENTIFIC NAME|
|Common Loon||Gavia immer|
|Red-necked Grebe||Podiceps grisegena|
|Snow Goose||Chen caerulescens|
|Canada Goose||Branta canadensis|
|Green-winged Teal||Anas crecca|
|Northern Pintail||Anas acuta|
|Northern Shoveler||Anas clypeata|
|American Wigeon||Anas americana|
|Greater Scaup||Aythya marila|
|Barrow's Goldeneye||Bucephala islandica|
|Bald Eagle||Haliaeetus leucocephalus|
|Northern Harrier||Circus cyaneus|
|Sharp-shinned Hawk||Accipiter striatus|
|Northern Goshawk||Accipiter gentilis|
|WILLOW PTARMIGAN||Lagopus lagopus|
|Sandhill Crane||Grus canadensis|
|Greater Yellowlegs||Tringa melanoleuca|
|Lesser Yellowlegs||Tringa flavipes|
|Hudsonian Godwit||Limosa haemastica|
|Short-billed Dowitcher||Limnodromus griseus|
|Common Snipe||Gallinago gallinago|
|Bonaparte's Gull||Larus philadelphia|
|MEW GULL||Larus canus|
|Herring Gull||Larus argentatus|
|Glaucous-winged Gull||Larus glaucescens|
|Arctic Tern||Sterna paradisaea|
|Rock Dove||Columba livia|
|Boreal Owl||Aegolius funereus|
|Rufous Hummingbird||Selasphorus rufus|
|Belted Kingfisher||Ceryle alcyon|
|Downy Woodpecker||Picoides pubescens|
|Three-toed Woodpecker||Picoides tridactylus|
|Tree Swallow||Tachycineta bicolor|
|Violet-green Swallow||Tachycineta thalassina|
|Gray Jay||Perisoreus canadensis|
|Black-billed Magpie||Pica pica|
|Common Raven||Corvus corax|
|Black-capped Chickadee||Poecile atricapillus|
|Boreal Chickadee||Poecile hudsonicus|
|Red-breasted Nuthatch||Sitta canadensis|
|Brown Creeper||Certhia americana|
|American Dipper||Cinclus mexicanus|
|Golden-crowned Kinglet||Regulus satrapa|
|Ruby-crowned Kinglet||Regulus calendula|
|American Robin||Turdus migratorius|
|Varied Thrush||Zoothera naevia|
|American Pipit||Anthus rubescens|
|Yellow-rumped Warbler||Dendroica coronaria|
|White-crowned Sparrow||Zonotrichia leucophrys|
|Dark-eyed Junco||Hyemalis junco|
|Rusty Blackbird||Euphagus carolinus|
|White-winged Crossbill||Loxia leucoptera|
|Common Redpoll||Carduelis flammea|
|Pine Siskin||Carduelis spinus|
ATTU BIRD LIST:
|COMMON NAME||SCIENTIFIC NAME|
|Red-throated Loon||Gavia stellata|
|Pacific Loon||Gavia pacifica|
|Common Loon||Gavia immer|
|YELLOW-BILLED LOON||Gavia adamsii|
|Red-necked Grebe||Podiceps grisegena|
|LAYSAN ALBATROSS||(Diomedea?) immutabilis|
|Pelagic Cormorant||Phalacrocorax pelagicus|
|RED-FACED CORMORANT||Phalacrocorax urile|
|WHOOPER SWAN||Cygnus cygnus|
|BEAN GOOSE||Anser fabalis|
|EMPEROR GOOSE||Chen canagica|
|Canada Goose||Branta canadensis|
|Green-winged (Common) Teal||Anas crecca crecca|
|Northern Pintail||Anas acuta|
|Northern Shoveler||Anas clypeata|
|Eurasian Wigeon||Anas penelope|
|COMMON POCHARD||Aythya ferina|
|Tufted Duck||Aythya fuligula|
|Greater Scaup||Aythya marila|
|Common Eider||Somateria mollissima|
|SPECTACLED EIDER||Somateria fischeri|
|Harlequin Duck||Histrionicus histrionicus|
|Black Scoter||Melanitta nigra|
|White-winged Scoter||Melanitta fusca|
|Common Goldeneye||Bucephala clangula|
|Common Merganser (Goosander)||Mergus merganser|
|Red-breasted Merganser||Mergus serrator (including one leucistic/albino)|
|Rough-legged Hawk||Buteo lagopus|
|Peregrine Falcon||Falco peregrinus|
|ROCK PTARMIGAN||Lagopus mutus|
|PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER||Pluvialis fulva|
|MONGOLIAN PLOVER||Charadrius mongolus|
|COMMON GREENSHANK||Tringa nebularia|
|SPOTTED REDSHANK||Tringa erythropus|
|WOOD SANDPIPER||Tringa glareola|
|COMMON SANDPIPER||Actitis hypoleuca|
|FAR-EASTERN CURLEW||Numenius madagascarensis|
|BLACK-TAILED GODWIT||Limosa limosa|
|BAR-TAILED GODWIT||Limosa lapponica|
|Ruddy Turnstone||Arenaria interpres|
|GREAT KNOT||Calidris tenuirostris|
|Red-necked Stint||Calidris ruficollis|
|TEMMINCK'S STINT||Calidris temminckii|
|LONG-TOED STINT||Calidris subminuta|
|ROCK SANDPIPER||Calidris ptilocnemis|
|Common Snipe||Gallinago gallinago|
|PINTAIL SNIPE||Gallinago stenura|
|Black-headed Gull||Larus ridibundus|
|SLATY-BACKED GULL||Larus schistisagus|
|Glaucous-winged Gull||Larus glaucescens|
|Black-legged Kittiwake||Rissa tridactyla|
|ALEUTIAN TERN||Sterna aleutica|
|Common Murre||Uria aalge|
|THICK-BILLED MURRE||Uria lomvia|
|Pigeon Guillemot||Cepphus columba|
|Marbled Murrelet||Brachyramphus marmoratus|
|KITTLITZ' MURRELET||Brachyramphus brevirostris|
|ANCIENT MURRELET||Synthliboramphus antiquus|
|TUFTED PUFFIN||Fratercula corniculata|
|HORNED PUFFIN||Fratercula cirrhata|
|Short-eared Owl||Asio flammea|
|SKY LARK||Alauda arvensis|
|Common Raven||Corvus corax|
|Winter Wren||Troglodytes troglodytes|
|GRAY-SPOTTED FLYCATCHER||Muscicapa griseisticta|
|SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT||Luscinia calliope|
|NORTHERN WHEATEAR||Oenanthe oenanthe|
|EYEBROWED THRUSH||Turdus obscurus|
|DUSKY THRUSH||Turdus naumanni|
|YELLOW WAGTAIL||Motacilla flava|
|GRAY WAGTAIL||Motacilla cinerea|
|BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL||Motacilla lugens|
|OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT||Anthus hodgsoni|
|PECHORA PIPIT||Anthus gustavi|
|RED-THROATED PIPIT||Anthus cervinus|
|Song Sparrow||Melospiza melodia|
|Lapland Longspur||Calcarius lapponicus|
|RUSTIC BUNTING||Emberiza rustica|
|Snow Bunting||Plectrophenax nivalis|
|GREY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH||Leucosticte (arctoa?)|
|ORIENTAL GREENFINCH||Carduelis sinica|
Glen Cove, NY