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Big Year Birding at the End of the World: Attu 2016, Part 1

You know the scene in a TV show in which a character says, “What more could possibly go wrong?” and then it cuts to something else going wrong? That’s how I felt at times on this year’s Attu tour. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it was a disaster. In fact, it was far from it. Even though there were a few times it seemed things weren’t going well, we ended up with one of our best trip lists to date.

***

Our Attu tour starts at Adak Island in the central Aleutians. The boat we use for the tour, the M/V Puk-uk, takes about five days to get there from her home port in Homer. This year was the first time that it was equipped with an online satellite tracking system, so I was able to check the boat’s progress a few times a day. Three days in, I noticed the boat had stopped moving near an island off the Alaskan Peninsula. I thought perhaps the weather had turned and they were waiting it out. When I woke the next morning, the boat had started moving again, but in the wrong direction. It was headed east. I had an uncomfortable feeling.

I wasn’t too surprised when my phone rang 30 minutes later. It was the captain. He was calling to tell me that there was a problem with the boat’s transmission. They were returning to Sand Point to make repairs. The part the boat needed would have to be sent from Florida. That takes time, several days, in fact. My uncomfortable feeling grew.

The entire tour group, my coleader Neil Hayward, and I were scheduled to arrive at Adak in just a few days. Our initial plan was to get on the boat and leave for Attu as quickly as possible, but now the boat wasn’t going to be there. Time for Plan B. We’d just bird on Adak until the boat got there. After a quick scramble to make arrangements for lodging and vehicles, everything was set.

As it turned out, the initial curse turned out to be a blessing, because shortly after arriving on a Thursday, we found a pair of Smew, including an adult male (my first). These turned out to be our only Smew on the tour. Other good birds were around too. Common Snipe were displaying over the marsh at Contractors Camp. Tufted Ducks and Eurasian Wigeon were present, the latter in good numbers. As expected, Kittlitz’s Murrelets were on Clam Lagoon. On our third day as we were watching Aleutian Terns over Kuluk Bay, I decided to scan behind us. Just as I turned, a familiar but out-of-place silhouette emerged from a wet area at the north end of the airport. It was a Black-crowned Night-Heron, a first record for Adak and very rare anywhere in Alaska. Given the location, this bird was likely a vagrant from Asia.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 8.53.53 PM

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 8.54.01 PM

By now, the boat was fixed on its way, but we had a new problem. It wasn’t going to arrive until Monday night. The houses and vehicles we were using were booked starting Sunday night. Our property manager had to work to find three other houses. Two of them were fine, but Neil discovered the third came with a man sleeping on the couch. Since that one was already occupied, another house was suggested, but this one had a few problems including no beds. At this point, I was thinking that some of us would be sleeping on couches, but then I ran into another Adak resident. I mentioned my problem, and he told me he had a couple of houses he could rent, as well as an additional vehicle. Problem solved.

On Monday, good birding continued. Neil spotted a pair of Ruffs flying into the Contractors Camp marsh, our only ones on the tour. Late in the day, the boat finally arrived. We loaded up and were finally on our way to Attu.

To make up for the delay, we tried to get to Attu as quickly as possible, though we did stop for a few sights during the 56-hour trip. On the first morning, the words “Short-tailed Albatross” woke me up. I walked into the wheelhouse and saw a subadult bird sitting on the water about 25 meters from the boat. The next day near Buldir Island, a live sperm whale and then a dead one got our attention. The dead one had a mass of Northern Fulmar feeding on it.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 8.54.15 PM

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 8.54.23 PM

Finally at Attu, we started to find Asian species fairly quickly. There was a pair of Brambling at Casco Point on our first day at the island. On the second day, we started to find good numbers of Wood Sandpipers and Rustic Buntings — so many as the tour went on that these species no longer seemed newsworthy. We also got to see a few mega rarities. Or least a few of us did. Unlike most rarities on previous tours, some of our best birds didn’t stick around long enough for everyone to see. Three of us including big year birder John Weigel saw a Pin-tailed Snipe. Another big-year birder, Laura Keene, and Brandon Reo found a Eurasian Hobby, but I was the only other person to see it. Several Siberian Rubythroats, a Hawfinch, and a flyover Olive-backed Pipit only showed themselves to single observers.

Photo: Christian Hagenlocher

Photo: Christian Hagenlocher

Photo: Brandon Reo

Photo: Brandon Reo

After five days on the island, there was a new problem: a storm with southeastern gale force winds was forecasted to hit the island. We normally anchor in the Massacre Bay area of the island, usually in Casco Cove. We’re protected here from weather from almost every direction — every direction except the southeast. To make matters worse, the wind was forecasted to last several days after the storm up to our scheduled departure back to Adak. It looked like this could be the end of our birding here. The mood was somber.

We decided to wait out the storm on the northwest side of Agattu, an island to the southeast. A break in the weather could give us an opportunity to find something there — Attu isn’t the only island to get vagrants. We woke the next morning to rain, high winds, and fog as forecasted.  By midafternoon the fog cleared though howling wind and rain continued. Still, some of the more hardy (or perhaps foolish) among us couldn’t wait any longer. About half of the group braved a rain-blasted skiff ride to land on the island. Almost immediately, we flushed a small flock of Wood Sandpipers. Those birds lifted our spirits, but not nearly as much as the updated forecast did. It was now showing west winds instead of southeast. We were going back to Attu for two more days!

Check out Part 2 here.

–=====–

John Puschock of Seattle, Washington, is the owner/operator of Zugunruhe Tours, currently the only operator that offers trips to Attu Island. He formerly covered the #ABArare beat at The ABA Blog.

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John Puschock

John Puschock

John Puschock reports ABA rare bird alerts and manages #ABArare for the American Birding Association. John is a frequent participant in rare bird forums around the web and has knack for gathering details necessary to relocate birds. He has been a birder since 1984 and now leads tours for Bird Treks, as well as for his own company Zugunruhe Birding Tours. He has led tours to locations across North America, from Newfoundland to New Mexico and from Costa Rica to Alaska. He specializes in leading tours to Adak in the Aleutian Islands.
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