American Birding Podcast



Big Year Birding at the End of the World: Attu 2016, Part 2

Catch up with Part 1 here.

We crossed Semichi Pass overnight and were back in Casco Cove at sunrise. We started birding with high hopes, and after just a few minutes we flushed an Eyebrowed Thrush from a willow on the west side of the cove. We also flushed a snipe from alongside a small stream where it crosses the road. I followed it in my scope for about a minute as it flew out over the cove. It never landed and disappeared to the south. I wish we had gotten a photo of that bird as I suspect it may have been a Solitary Snipe. Our finds for the rest of the day were primarily Rustic Buntings and Wood Sandpipers.

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For the final day at Attu, we decided to hike Gilbert Ridge and Alexai Point for our last hurrah. The initial plan was to start at the west end of Gilbert Ridge, but a leftover southeast swell would have made landing a skiff there difficult, so instead we put ashore near Brambling Bluff, further to the southwest. This meant we had a longer walk ahead of us, but yet again, things worked out in our favor. After just a few hundred yards, we flushed two tattlers, a Wandering and a Gray-tailed. The Gray-tailed, our first for the trip, hid behind a rock, which turned out to work in our favor. As everyone gathered around trying to get a better look, we noticed another shorebird that had also been hiding. It was a Common Sandpiper, another first for the trip.

We then made our way over to the ridge and started the hike east to Alexai Point. The only vagrants we encountered along most of the ridge were a few more Rustic Buntings. It seemed like today was going to be a repeat of yesterday — a great start but a slow end — but as we neared Alexai, Neil called out a flock of Bramblings. Seven of them flew past us, going east to west. I had the good/bad feeling that migrating birds were just arriving thanks to the storm that drove us to Agattu (it can take a day or two for misplaced birds to arrive at Attu following a weather event). Yes, arriving birds is a good thing, but we would have to start our return to Adak in just a few hours. Were we going to miss a fallout?

Well, we may have missed some of the fallout, but we didn’t miss all of it. As we made our way out Alexai Point, a White Wagtail flew overhead and landed on the beach. Then not too long after that a flock of five shorebirds were seen coming in high off the ocean. I got my binoculars on them, and one appeared to have a white trailing edge on its wings. I quickly got on the radio and told everyone with cameras to get photos of the flock. The only species I could think of with this wing pattern was Terek Sandpiper, and I hoped someone would get photos to confirm the ID. We did get photos, but they weren’t necessary. The flocked wheeled around twice above us and then landed on rocks only 100 feet away. At first, scope views only revealed Gray-tailed Tattlers, but then a Terek walked up from behind a rock and sat at the top.

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After a quick photo session with this flock we continued around the point. A short distance down the beach, Christian Hagenlocher found another Common Sandpiper, and he then proceeded to photograph TWO Tereks in flight.

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Photo: Christian Hagenlocher

As we finished our walk around the point, I radioed to the boat to send the skiff to pick us up. Just after making that call, I noticed a gull far down the beach that looked smaller than the others. I set my scope back up and confirmed that it was a Black-headed Gull, our tenth Code 3 or better bird for the day.

We found a few Long-toed Stints during our stay on Attu. Photo: Neil Hayward

We found a few Long-toed Stints during our stay on Attu. Photo: Neil Hayward

The boat ride back to Adak was relatively uneventful. Calmer conditions than we had on the outbound trip allowed the photographers to spend more time on deck, getting shots of the seabirds around the boat. Christian managed to photograph a Mottled Petrel while the rest of us were looking the other direction, probably looking at the first Black-footed Albatross of the trip or photographing one of the many Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels that were around us at the time.

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Photo: Christian Hagenlocher

Photo: Christian Hagenlocher

We got back to the vicinity of Adak on the last night of the tour, but we weren’t heading to the island just yet. We still had to check out Little Tanaga Strait for Whiskered Auklets. Thousands can be found here. The boat anchored in a small bay on the east side of the strait. Calls of the auklets could be heard coming from Little Tanaga Island late at night. They apparently nest here, but it seems not much is known about them at this spot.

We weren’t disappointed the next morning. There were several thousand Whiskered Auklets in the strait. After a run through the strait, we were torn. You don’t get to see this species very often, but we wanted to get back to Adak. Texts from birders on the island the previous night said that there was a Temminck’s Stint at Clam Lagoon, so we wanted to be sure there was time to look for that bird before everyone had to fly home. I couldn’t get a cell phone signal in the strait, but once we got closer to Adak, I received another text that brought some bad and good news: the Temminck’s wasn’t found that morning, but a Far Eastern Curlew had just been found. I sent a few texts to make sure there would be vehicles waiting for us when we got back.

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And the vehicles were waiting for us. It was just a five-minute drive and a walk up a sand dune to where the curlew plus a “Siberian” Whimbrel were waiting for us. It was a great ending to a tour that at times seemed like it would not be great at all.


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.