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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Dutch Harbor

June 1998

by Dave Quady

"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."

Thus began Bill Smith's June 1997 trip report to Birdchat.  Soon thereafter I began planning the trip which sent Jon Dunn, Lisa Oakley, Dick Spight, John Vanderpoel and me in search of Whiskered Auklet this year.  With the hope that his, and my, trip reports inspire others to visit this awesome location, I'll describe our group's experience, using (with Bill's permission) many of his words.

Within the past few years, Dutch Harbor -- more precisely the City of Unalaska, which includes it -- has expanded greatly, providing local infrastructure that 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 canceled due to weather conditions.  Once there, getting out to the bird islands is also weather dependent.

Our schedules dictated that we make our journey in mid-June.  This was fortunate, because June and early July are apparently a good time to try: weather then is better, on average, and demand for local facilities is relatively low.  This was also very "unfortunate", because runway repair work at Dutch Harbor this summer limited access to planes much smaller than the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Bill used last year.  This in turn made it exceedingly difficult for the three of us who wanted to use Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles to book seats.  Our idea was to arrive late morning Thursday, June 18, take our boat trip on Friday (with Saturday as a weather day), and return mid-day Sunday, June 21 (RT fare ex ANC ~$700 for those purchasing tickets).

I began my planning by calling the Unalaska Visitors Bureau [907-581-2612], which sent a very helpful packet of information including a bird checklist for the area.  We stayed at Carl's Bayview Inn [907/800-581-1230], a new, family-owned place providing nice, large rooms for (reportedly -- I didn't check) 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 rented a Ford Explorer for $60 a day from Northport Rentals at the airport [907-581-3880].

Bill identified two principal charter boats (6 passengers max.): a Hatteras-type sport-fishing boat associated with the Grand Aleutian Hotel, and a less fancy boat owned by John Lucking, d/b/a Far West Outfitters [907-581-1647 (w); 907-581-1647 (h)].  Bill and others described John to me as capable, accommodating, and birder-oriented, so in late January I booked with him, at $165 pp (min.  4).

We flew from Anchorage in cramped, chock-full 17-passenger Pen Air Fairchild Metroliner turbo-props which lacked lavatories but mercifully made an intermediate stop at King Salmon before landing uneventfully at Dutch Harbor.  Because we were on three separate planes we didn't assemble until 3 pm, under gray skies and southwesterly winds to 35 knots.  I phoned John immediately to see if we could venture out that evening.  But he decided it was too rough, and suggested we wait for the better weather that was expected -- for Friday.  Alas, dawn brought little apparent change in wind speed.  We checked with John every few hours from 6 am until 6 pm on Friday.  But even though the weather was improving he decided the seas were still too rough for a pleasant trip, and again recommended we wait for the better weather that was forecasted -- for Saturday.

With crunch time approaching, we caucused Friday evening to decide what to do.  One choice, staying over until weather improved, was not possible for some of us.  John had an unavoidable fishing commitment Saturday morning, so he offered us two choices: go out Saturday morning on a somewhat slower boat he'd lined up, or wait until 3 pm Saturday when he could take us out -- weather permitting, in each case.  With some hesitation, we decided to risk waiting until Saturday afternoon.

Saturday's dawn brought diminished winds and the hope that we would not be shut out.  But to improve their odds of seeing the bird, one of our party decided to charter a flying boat based at Dutch Harbor in hopes of getting satisfactory looks at the bird from the air.  Three people roared off on that adventure while the other two spent the morning birding on land.  About 1 pm we re-assembled to share tales of flocks of birds seen from 500 + ft altitude that _must_ have been Whiskered Auklets, to have lunch, and to head -- hopefully -- for John's boat.

At 3 pm we cast off the 32-foot Suzanne Marie into gentle seas, with westerly winds forecasted to 15 knots, and reached Unalga Pass about 4:30.  Here, in the tidal rips, were upwards of a thousand Whiskered Auklets, 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 9 pm.  Other alcids we saw from the boat: myriad-thousands of Tufted Puffins; tens of Pigeon Guillemots, Marbled Murrelets, Ancient Murrelets, Cassin's Auklets, and Horned Puffins; smaller numbers of Crested Auklets and Rhinoceros Auklets; and one probable Thick-billed Murre.  Other alcid species reported in these waters include Common Murre (one of which we saw on Iliuliuk Bay), Kittlitz's Murrelet, Parakeet Auklet, and Least Auklet.  Among other birds we saw from the boat, the single Laysan Albatross was a lifer for some and a thrill for all.  But probably the most impressive sightings were the tightly-packed rafts of thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters we nosed into, startling them into flight, wave upon wave, their pattering feet as they took off from the calm sea sounding like bursts of rainwater on tin roofs, accelerating and decelerating.

We celebrated that evening with several toasts and a late, long, richly satisfying dinner.  Sunday morning we did nothing more strenuous than stake halibut carcasses onto the beach to chum in Bald Eagles to photograph, attracting fifty or more in no time.  Then we flew out together, this time in a six-passenger Pen Air Piper 1040 to Cold Bay (a wonderful flight; much of the time at 400 - 500 ft.  altitude to stay below the ceiling) where we transferred to another Metroliner for our final leg back to Anchorage.

Because we were on tenterhooks until Saturday afternoon we did not bird on land as much as Bill Smith's party evidently did.  Doing this trip again, I would schedule another day to fully enjoy the distinctive subspecies resident around Dutch Harbor, such as the nominate race of Savannah Sparrow.  Still, we did explore much of the area's road system and see most all the local birdlife expected at this season.

I have created a checklist for the area that adds Bill Smith's, our, and John Shipley's lists (Shipley, d/b/a Goldeneye Tours [800-308-6444], has led groups to Dutch Harbor for at least five years) to the one I obtained from the Chamber of Commerce.  If anyone wants a copy, send me a business-sized SASE with the word "Dutch" prominent somewhere, and I'll mail you a copy.  I also invite anyone else who has birded the area between mid-May and mid-July to send me their sightings (with trip details) to add to this checklist.

Our complete trip list follows.
Laysan Albatross Diomedea immutabilis
Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis (rodgersii)
Short-tailed Shearwater Puffinus Tenuirostris
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus (cincinatus)
Pelagic Cormorant P. pelagicus (pelagicus)
Green-winged Teal Anas crecca (crecca)
Mallard A. platyrhynchos (platyrhynchos)
Greater Scaup Aythya marila (marila)
Common Eider Somateria mollissima (v-nigra)
Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Common Merganser Mergus merganser (merganser)
Red-breasted Merganser M. serrator
Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus (alascanus)
Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus (nelsoni)
Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
Rock Sandpiper Calidris ptilocnemis (couesi)
Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens
Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla (pollicaris)
Common Murre Uria aalge (inornata)
Thick-billed Murre (?) U. lomvia (arra)
Pigeon Guillemot Cepphus columba
Marbled Murrelet Brachyramphus marmoratus
Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus
Cassin's Auklet Ptychoramphus aleuticus (aleuticus)
Whiskered Auklet Aethia pygmaea
Crested Auklet A. cristatella
Rhinoceros Auklet Cecorhinca monocerata
Tufted Puffin Fratercula cirrhata
Horned Puffin F. corniculata
Bank Swallow Riparia riparia (riparia)
Common Raven Corvus corax (kamtschaticus)
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)
Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea (flammea)

Taxonomy & nomenclature follow Gibson & Kessel, Western Birds 28: 45-95, 1997.

Dave Quady
39 The Crescent
Berkeley, California 94708

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