10 - 13 June 1997
by P. W. (Bill) Smith
Anyone wishing to see "all" North America's breeding birds eventually must confront the challenge of the Whiskered Auklet (Aethia pygmaea), a relatively rare and local resident in the Aleutian Island chain of Alaska. Until fairly recently the only practical way for most birders to hope to glimpse the species was to take one of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system's lengthy monthly roundtrips between Homer and Dutch Harbor aboard a vessel affectionately known by its fans as the 'Vomit Comet'. But even this is chancy; the birds are found only over a tiny area which the ship _may_ traverse depending on weather conditions, and then the looks at them probably would be fleeting at best.
Within the past few years, however, Dutch Harbor, more precisely the City of Unalaska which includes it, has expanded greatly, providing local infrastructure which allows anyone with some flexibility to fly commercially the 800 miles from Anchorage, stay comfortably overnight, and charter a boat to visit the vicinity of one of the breeding grounds -- the Baby Islands, about 30 miles to the east. Flexibility is key, however; the Dutch Harbor airstrip is one of the most hair-raising in the world, and many flights (currently offered by Pen Air, Reeve Aleutian, and Alaska Airlines) are cancelled due to weather conditions. Once there, getting out to the bird islands is also weather dependent. My investigations, beginning with the Unalaska Visitors Bureau [907-581-2612], suggested that June and early July was a good time to try, for weather then was better on average, and demand for local facilities was relatively low. My wife, three friends, and I flew out on 10 June with our return booked for 13 June (RT fare ex ANC ~ $700+, but two of us got frequent flier seats several months in advance). We stayed at Carl's Bayview Inn [907/800-581-1230], a new, family-owned place providing nice, large rooms for about half the price of the other major hotel, the elegant Grand Aleutian [907-581-3844/800-891-1194]. Both offer courtesy airport transfers, but we opted to hire a Ford Explorer for $60 a day from Northport Rentals at the airport [907-581-3880].
There seem to be two principal charter boats (6 passengers max): a Hatteras-type sport-fishing boat associated with the Grand Aleutian Hotel, and a less fancy but perhaps more birder-friendly boat owned by John Lucking, d/b/a Far West Outfitters [907-581-1647]. For 1997, the Grand Aleutian quoted $185 pp for its "auklet tour" (min. 2), but some other birders apparently have been paired with fisherman on this boat and have not really gone birding. John, whose charter business is only part-time, seemed more accommodating and birder-oriented and quoted $150 pp (min. 4). I chose to book with John, several months in advance.
Our Alaska Airlines 737 flight from Anchorage was full and made a thrilling on-time landing in early afternoon to gray skies and deteriorating weather. I phoned John right away, who suggested we leave as soon as possible. We boarded the 32-foot Suzanne Marie at 3 pm in still fairly gentle winds and seas, and reached Unalga Pass about 4:30. Here, in the tidal rips, were ~ 1-2 thousand Whiskered Aukets, of which we eventually obtained excellent views despite their evident shyness. We sailed along the Pacific shore of Unalga I.; around and through the Baby Islands; and then back through the Bering Sea to Dutch Harbor, where we disembarked about 8:30. In addition to the Whiskered Aukets, we saw about 50 Ancient Murrelets (Synthliboramphus antiquus), myriad-thousands of Tufted Puffins (Fratercula cirrhata), and smaller numbers of Common and Thick-billed Murres (Uria aalge & U. lomvia), Pigeon Guillemots (Cepphus columba), Marbled Murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus), and Horned Puffins (F. corniculata). Other alcid species reported in these waters include Kittlitz' Murrelet (B. brevirostris), Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus), Parakeet Auklet (Cyclorrhynchus psittacula), and Crested Auklet (A. cristatella), all of which we had seen earlier during our trip to Alaska so did not seek. For some reason this was a poor year for tubenoses; we saw none (one person claimed a distant Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Oceanodroma furcata, a common local breeder).
Weather continued to deteriorate; we _might_ have been able to go to sea on the next morning. One member of our group managed to get a seat to fly out on the 11th, but the 12th was truly foul and all flights were cancelled. Luckily the rest of us had not been able to rebook, so we had seat priority on the 13th, one of the few calm sunny days the area ever gets. During our 2.5 days ashore we explored all 25 miles or so of the area's road system, multiple times, and saw near the car virtually all the local birdlife expected at this season, as follows (some species were also seen from the boat). Of particular note were hundreds of Bald Eagles, many Harlequin Ducks in splendid plumage, and three Rock Ptarmigans next to our car.
|Common Loon||Gavia immer|
|Pelagic Cormorant||Phalacrocorax pelagicus (pelagicus)|
|Red-faced Cormorant||P. urile|
|Green-winged Teal||Anas crecca (carolinensis)|
|Mallard||A. platyrhynchos (platyrhynchos)|
|Greater Scaup||Aythya marila (marila)|
|Common Eider||Somateria mollissima (v-nigra)|
|Harlequin Duck||Histrionicus histrionicus|
|Red-breasted Merganser||Mergus serrator|
|Bald Eagle||Haliaeetus leucocephalus (alascanus)|
|Rock Ptarmigan||Lagopus mutus (nelsoni)|
|Semipalmated Plover||Charadrius semipalmatus|
|Black Oystercatcher||Haematopus bachmani|
|Rock Sandpiper||Calidris ptilocnemis (couesi)|
|Common Snipe||Gallinago gallinago (delicata)|
|Glaucous-winged Gull||Larus glaucescens|
|Black-legged Kittiwake||Rissa tridactyla (pollicaris)|
|Belted Kingfisher||Ceryle alcyon|
|Bank Swallow||Riparia riparia (riparia)|
|Common Raven||Corvus corax (kamtschaticus)|
|Winter Wren||Troglodytes troglodytes (kiskensis)|
|American Dipper||Cinclus mexicanus (unicolor)|
|American Pipit||Anthus rubescens (pacificus)|
|Savannah Sparrow||Passerculus sandwichensis (sandwichensis)|
|Song Sparrow||Melospiza melodia (sanaka)|
|Lapland Longspur||Calcarius lapponicus (alascensis)|
|Snow Bunting||Plectrophenax nivalis (townsendi)|
|Gray-crowned Rosy Finch||Leucosticte tephrocotis (griseonucha)|
Taxonomy & nomenclature follow Gibson & Kessel, Western Birds 28: 45-95, 1997.
P W (Bill) Smith
Dade Co., Florida USA
firstname.lastname@example.org [change the b to d if using]