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Attu Birding

Text and photographs by Marshall Iliff. Thanks to Barry Lyon (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours)

This past September, VENT chartered Cruise West’s Spirit of Oceanus, exclusively for birders, for a trip across the Bering Sea, with a week at legendary Attu Island. Not since the final days of Attour, Inc. have birders had access to this remote migration outpost. This expedition presented an extraordinary opportunity to combine some of the world’s greatest pelagic birding with time at one of the most exciting birding destinations in North America, and all from the comfort of a small adventure cruise ship. This trip was possibly the biggest undertaking VENT has ever attempted. For this endeavor we brought together 100 participants and a veteran team of tour leaders from both Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and Attour, Inc. The list of talent included Victor Emanuel, Larry Balch, Pete Dunne, Steve Heinl, Steve Hilty, Marshall Iliff, Jeri Langham, Thede Tobish, David Wolf, and Barry Zimmer. The report that follows is a compilation of daily logs, contributed by Marshall Iliff, that describes not just the remarkable birds that were seen, but also the mammals, scenery and emotions displayed by various group members. The collection of logs has been significantly edited from the original version, but the reports in their entirety can be viewed at: http://www.ventbird.com/news/journals/410/.

Day 1, September 7, 2006. Arrival in Anchorage & Field Trips.

Although today is the official "arrival" day for our Attu Cruise, approximately 50 participants arrived yesterday, and today took part in field trips exploring the Anchorage area. Our six vans headed first to Arctic Valley, a short distance north of Anchorage, where we drove uphill to treeline and birded along the way. The very first bird seen was a stately adult Bald Eagle perched along the roadside. The woods were quiet, but we were able to find a few breeding landbirds: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, a single Yellow Warbler, and some Pine Siskins.

On our ascent, some vehicles were rewarded with great looks at a singing male Varied Thrush perched on a dead spruce snag. The lead vehicles had the find of the day, two male Spruce Grouse collecting gravel in the road. After lengthy scope looks at the grouse, we continued uphill for a brief hike on the alpine tundra. Although there were few fall colors near sea level in Anchorage, fall has arrived higher up the mountains and the highlight for many was the foliage—bright golden aspens and burgundy blueberry leaves painted a wonderful palette at these elevations. In addition to the colors, our various parties found several species of sparrows still in their breeding areas here, including Lincoln's, Savannah, "Sooty" Fox, White-crowned, and Golden-crowned.

The groups then headed for Ship Creek, which empties into Knik Arm just north of Anchorage. It is a staging area for gulls, so we tested our skills at separating Bonaparte's, Mew, "American" Herring, and Glaucous-winged, as well as various hybrids between Herring and Glaucous-winged. Participants in four vans were treated to a third-winter California Gull, a real rarity for the Anchorage area!

After lunch our vans headed in several different directions. Four vans went to Ship Creek Fish Hatchery, where an American Dipper methodically worked the shoreline along the turbulent creek waters. At the end of the day, everybody was in agreement that this was a promising start to our highly anticipated trip.

American Dipper
American Dipper

Day 2, September 8, 2006. Anchorage area and departure for Whittier.

After a 6:00 a.m. breakfast, the group boarded two buses for a morning of birding around Anchorage. Although some of the areas were repeats for those that had joined us yesterday, we still managed to find some new birds. Chief among them was a late lingering juvenile Hudsonian Godwit at Westchester Lagoon. Hudsonian Godwit, one of the rarer breeding shorebirds in North America, breeds in four widely separated areas in subarctic North America. One of those areas is right around Anchorage, and the flats off of downtown are one of the best places to see this species during its breeding season. Most have migrated south by early September though, so we counted ourselves lucky to find one roosting with Short-billed Dowitchers and Greater Yellowlegs on the small island in the lagoon.

After lunch, three buses headed east towards Portage and Whittier at 13:10. A stop at Potter's Marsh produced a distant Pacific Loon. Trumpeter Swans were seen there and farther down the road near Girdwood.

After boarding the ship, some birders braved the light rain and sea-watched as we moved south in Prince William Sound, finding kittiwakes, gulls, two Parasitic Jaegers, 100+ Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, and two curious Steller's sea lions before dark.

Day 3, September 9, 2006. The Mother of all Pelagics.

Coffee was available by 6:30, and by 6:31 some intrepid passengers and leaders were already on deck looking for birds in the half light. Seas were substantial and the deck was pitching and rolling enough that viewing was difficult. The skies were gray and overcast, and the light drizzle ended early in the morning giving us clear viewing conditions. As the day wore on the seas settled down nicely and made for an excellent day of pelagic birding. Our position was just off Resurrection Bay and some of us glimpsed the Chiswell Islands, large bird colonies that our two Alaska tours visit each year on the Seward/Kenai Fjords portion of our tours. Being near the Chiswells certainly contributed to the healthy numbers of alcids, and we saw numerous family groups of murres and both species of puffins.

In the first few hours there were hundreds of Northern Fulmars (various color morphs) and Common Murres, plus dozens of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Horned and Tufted Puffins, and Pomarine Jaegers. The jaegers were especially enjoyable, since many passed quite close to the ship and the birds provided a range of plumages to challenge even the leaders. We also recorded a handful of Parasitic Jaegers, a few Sooty Shearwaters, a few Short-tailed Shearwaters, and a couple each of Parakeet Auklet, Cassin's Auklet, Ancient Murrelet, and Red Phalarope.

At midday we passed Cook Inlet. Several currents converged on the falling tide at Cook Inlet and the tidal rips there were teeming with life. The real bonanza began at about 12:30, when Joe Hanfman of Maryland spotted a distant whale blow. It quickly became obvious that the spout was from a distant male Orca (killer whale), and concerted watching eventually revealed that there were several pods in the area. The closer we got the more we realized that we had arrived at a real hot spot—there were no fewer than 50 Orcas, separated into 6 to 7 pods, within view of the ship. Some of the Orcas were clearly feeding, and slick areas of fish oil at the surface attracted some 700 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. Hundreds of Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes would form periodic feeding frenzies, wheeling and dipping to the surface to glean the scraps of the Orcas' meal. As we slowly crept through the tidal rips, flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes would flush ahead of the ship and careful scrutiny revealed a few Red Phalaropes. One or two Arctic Terns among the swarms proved to be the only ones seen all day—most Arctics have already left Alaska for their long trip to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere.


From noon to about dusk we navigated the 150-mile Shelikof Strait, which is the channel between the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island. The remainder of the day's watching produced many of the same species, and the die-hards continued to get good looks at such oceanic species as Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Pomarine Jaeger, Northern Fulmar, kittiwakes, and a variety of alcids. Parakeet Auklets were more common in the afternoon watch, and of the shearwaters we identified, Sooty Shearwaters seemed to give way to Short-tailed. As we move west, Short-tailed will increasingly become the dominant dark shearwater. We are all looking forward to what tomorrow will bring.

Fork-tailed Storm Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm Petrel

Day 4, September 10, 2006. The Mother of the Mother of all Pelagics.

Yesterday Larry Balch presented a series of slides entitled "Mother of All ABA-Area Pelagic Trips: Parts I & II." Today must then have been "the mother of the mother."

Our morning began with a cruise through flat, glassy waters off the Alaska Peninsula. The snow-capped peaks, rugged volcanoes, and light breezes were a stark contrast to the poor weather of the previous morning. Shearwaters (apparently mostly, or all, Short-tailed) dotted the water all the way to the horizon, and alcids of several species sped by low over the waves. At about 10:00 a.m. we did a circuit around the Haystacks, which are part of the Shumagin group. Thousands of puffins, kittiwakes, shearwaters, and cormorants swirled around us, along with a couple of pairs of Bald Eagles and ravens. Steller's sea lions stood as sentries on rocky islets and humpback whales fed around us.

Oceanus Memorial Forest
Oceanus Memorial Forest, copyright Ken Blackshaw

"Oceanus Memorial Forest": One of Victor's leaders (okay, it was me) suggested that we "plant" a small forest on our vessel to hopefully attract wayward migrants. Thede Tobish assisted by bringing cuttings of small trees (two spruces, several alders, etc.) and the deckhands lashed them to the aft side of the #5 deck. Hence, the "Oceanus Memorial Forest" (OMF) was born. Up until this afternoon, it had mostly been the butt of many jokes, the object of wild fantasies about scops-owls, a reminder of home, and a photo-op. But today, when an Orange-crowned Warbler circled the ship several times in the morning, we began to wonder if the forest might just "do the trick." Sure enough, the warbler re-appeared at 3:00 p.m. and after several approaches finally landed among the trees.

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler

Our first albatross of the trip, called out as a Black-footed, suddenly banked to reveal a bright, bubblegum-pink bill - Short-tailed! Unfortunately that bird flew past us and kept going so that most people missed it. Judicious chumming though, brought in a Short-tailed Albatross of the same age (same bird or not?) and later we had another one fly up our wake and past the port side. Photos taken of both birds showed that they were not the same individuals.

Our grand finale was during dinner, and once word reached the dining room great pandemonium ensued. A single adult Red-legged Kittiwake came right up the wake to the stern of the ship, where the quick and the lucky watched it for about five minutes. Unfortunately microphone issues prevented it from being seen by all, so Red-legged Kittiwake remains one of our other big target birds.

Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross

Day 5, September 11, 2006. Whiskers and Babies.

Just before dawn we reached our refueling dock at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island, and many of us got ready for a walk around the island. We had about an hour-and-a-half to explore the island, which did not give us a lot of time. A short list of highlights found by one group or another includes Bald Eagle at close range in the scope; Rock Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstone, and Wandering Tattlers on the beach; Song and Savannah sparrows (both of which breed) singing from the weedy patches; flyover Common Redpolls and brief looks at Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches; a Marbled Murrelet in the harbor and a juvenile Black Oystercatcher on the beach; and flocks of Harlequin Ducks in the harbor.

Aleutian Islands
Aleutian Islands

From Dutch Harbor we backtracked to the Baby Island group which we had passed at 4:00 a.m., and which is famous for its Whiskered Auklets. Strong tidal rips between the islands are favored feeding grounds of the Whiskereds, which breed and winter in such areas scattered throughout the Aleutians. Being so close to a major port, Dutch Harbor is their most famous home in the world. We crisscrossed the rips and eventually had fine looks for all at Whiskered Auklets, including many juveniles.

As we left the Baby Islands we put ourselves on a course to Chelam Bank, an upwelling area off the north side of Unalaska Island. As we approached, David Wolf spotted a huge swarm of shearwaters feeding over some whales. We decided to change course to head for the swarm and only later learned that it was no course change at all—the activity was over Chelam Bank. A couple of the leaders made real tries at estimating the number of birds and independently came up with one-and-a-half-million birds. At least 30 humpback whales were feeding among the shearwaters. Shearwaters were streaming across in front of us and flocks were peppering the water. Periodically thousands of shearwaters would suddenly bunch up on a given spot and within a matter of seconds a whale would spout from the center. We soon came to realize that the humpbacks were "bubble net feeding," whereby several humpbacks would create a circular net of bubbles that essentially trapped the fish. Then by coming up through the fish with their mouths agape, the whales could take in thousands of the trapped fish. It soon became evident that the shearwaters were capitalizing on the fish that were trapped by the bubbles to either side and the surfacing whale below. Once we realized it, we learned to watch the sudden shearwater aggregations for surfacing whales. A handful of the whales surfaced within a couple hundred feet of us, writhing masses of shearwaters were visible in all directions, and a variety of other birds (including Whiskered, Least, and Cassin's auklets) kept us awestruck for about 45 minutes. The ship's crew said they had never seen such a remarkable aggregation of birds and whales on their many cruises in the region. Victor believed that this was the largest concentration of any vertebrate that he had ever seen, rivaling the bats of Concan, Texas, and the herd animals of the Serengeti. For many of the leaders, this will live on as the most incredible sight of the trip. We finally moved on, but it wasn't long before the next dose of excitement.

Short-tailed Shearwaters
Short-tailed Shearwaters

It was a complete shock when the first Aleutian record of Red-breasted Nuthatch (!) came flying in while we were leaving Chelam Bank. It explored its way around the ship, quickly becoming the second species (after Orange-crowned) to perch in the OMF. Other perching sites included Dave Wolf's shoulder and the gloved hands of several participants. After its confiding visit it headed off towards land—hopefully to not only make landfall, but then reorient towards the SOUTH, like a normal bird!

Red-breasted Nuthatch and David Wolfe
Red-breasted Nuthatch and David Wolf

Day 6, September 12, 2006. The Mother of the Mother of the Mother.

I'm not sure if anyone tried, but if one had, one might have seen Short-tailed Albatross, Red-legged Kittiwake, and Mottled Petrel all from the hot tub within 10 minutes. And that's not counting Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses, Fork-tailed and Leach's storm-petrels, Sooty and Short-tailed shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Parasitic Jaegers, Black-legged Kittiwake, or any of several other species that were nearly constant presences today. This was, without question, the best day of pelagic birding of this trip - possibly of my life.

Dawn found us at Seguam Pass, an area of exceptional currents and upwelling famous for its albatross concentrations (especially Short-tailed). We laid our chum slick as dawn broke and immediately were surrounded by hundreds of feeding birds including up to 45 albatrosses of both species. Although no Short-taileds visited initially, we did spot one, and then another, once we were underway. Our second chum slick was a bust, but the third time was the charm. While looping back to investigate a Short-tailed on the water, our slick pulled in one, then another, then another, and so on, until our day's total reached seven! Two more birds later in the day gave us a total of 10 (!) for the day.

The Mottled Petrels started at 15:20. After days of watching and a bit of apprehension that perhaps we were "too late," the first petrel appeared far off the starboard beam. A few people got on that one but it took almost an hour to find the next. With some teamwork, we eventually deduced that the petrels were in a concerted line moving westward, and by heading south for several miles we were able to intersect the line such that almost everyone had good looks. Only about five were close enough to see well in binoculars, but many more were easily scoped from the stable top deck in the relatively light seas.

While we observed Mottled Petrels, our chum slick worked its magic. Although slow at first, it eventually pulled in albatrosses (including another Short-tailed) along with three Red-legged Kittiwakes (the first good looks for some), up to 17 Pomarine Jaegers at once, and many other species. Most surprising, a mystery albatross appeared far back in the wake and on its approach was identified as a Black-footed x Laysan. Although this hybrid combination is not common, it has been recorded many times. Our bird was the size of a Black-footed, whitish on the breast and belly, had a pinkish-gray bill intermediate between the two species, and had a moderate amount of white on the underwing, unlike Black-footed. This was a new bird for even our most seasoned leaders.

Short-tailed Albatross
Short-tailed Albatross
Short-tailed Albatross, juvenile
Short-tailed Albatross, juvenile

Day 7, September 13, 2006. Thar She Blows!

So far, on every full day at sea we have had at least one totally amazing natural experience. On September 9 it was the Orca congregation with thousands of birds; on September 10 the Short-tailed Albatross; on September 11 the masses of one million plus shearwaters and 30 humpback whales - the highlight of the trip for many of us; September 12 brought the huge congregation of albatross (including 10 Short-tailed); and today's greatest excitement finally came right on schedule for dinner. Many of our meals and lectures have been interrupted, and this evening a group of whales were spotted within the first 10 minutes of the dinner period. The whales were fairly large (30 feet), but had fairly short, falcate dorsal fins that were rounded at the tips. We estimated 11–15 animals traveling together, and their spouts were different from other species that travel in such groups. As excitement mounted, those of us watching in scopes were soon able to see the bulbous melon-like forehead and narrow, sometimes upturned rostrum that confirmed the identification as Baird's beaked whales. Amazingly, the ship was able to approach the pod quite closely before they sounded, but before they did we saw some fantastic behavior. One large animal, possibly the largest male, started a dramatic series of tail slaps.

In the midst of all this excitement several sperm whales were spotted. Although we'd seen a few between Kiska and Buldir, those animals were distant and the views of their tail flukes and spout were about all we had. This time the ship was able to approach the animals, and the large squarish head, wrinkled skin, small bumpy dorsal fin, angled blow, and distinctive fluke could be observed well through binoculars or extremely well through scopes, since the ship was providing such a stable platform.

During lunch we had a flock of 30 Lapland Longspurs. During the previous morning at Seguam Pass we had a Lapland Longspur and a Ruddy Turnstone calling around the ship before dawn, one mystery passerine with an odd call, a probable Orange-crowned Warbler (very far west, if so) that almost landed on the ship, and a calling American Pipit. Near-daily sightings of Peregrine Falcons have been another oddity.

Our course today took us to the north end of Kiska Island (site of a massive seabird colony) where we had wonderful looks at Least Auklets and brief looks at several groups of Crested Auklets. From Kiska we cruised over deep water towards Buldir Island, one of the smaller and most remote of the western Aleutians. En route our chum did a fantastic job of attracting birds, and at some points we had 100+ Laysan Albatrosses behind the ship, outnumbering Black-footed Albatrosses for the first time. Other than a notable lack of Short-tailed Albatrosses (we are certainly spoiled!), this was perhaps our best chumming of all. Our only new bird was "just" a Herring Gull, but in fact, it was a Siberian "Vega" Herring Gull, which is a potential split. We had great looks at the bird, plus both kittiwakes, fulmars, Short-tailed Shearwaters, and more. Best of all we had our first sperm whales, but better looks were had later in the day.

The balance of this day was occupied with preparations for our Attu landing: a zodiac safety meeting, leader strategy sessions, and a group session on Attu birding procedure. We were divided into our three groups for Attu: wagtails, pipits, and cuckoos. Not surprisingly for a group taking three weeks to voyage to the Bering Sea in September, the cuckoos filled up first.

Sperm Whale
Sperm Whale

Day 8, September 14, 2006. Day 1 on Attu.

We entered Massacre Bay at sunrise and spent much of the morning taking pictures of the rosy-fingered dawn as it first touched Attu - our home for the next week. Three emissaries from the Coast Guard Station met us on the ship for the Unexploded Ordnance Meeting, complete with a PowerPoint presentation and all.

Our disembarkation for the island finally came at about 8:30. In total, 96 people made ten plus zodiac runs to Alexai Point. Alexai presents some of the most varied habitats on Attu: short grass runways, marshy ponds, kelp-lined beaches, rocky shorelines, and sheltered thickets of rank undergrowth. We divided into four teams to try to cover the point completely.

Our first special sighting was waiting for us in the scopes as we first set foot on Attu. Although not officially split yet, "Kamchatka" Mew Gull is thought by many to be a species in its own right. The juvenile that Barry Zimmer found on the beach actually turned out to be the best bird of the day and one of few Attu records. About one hour later our highly ordered sweep for birds degenerated into complete mayhem. My group called in a Sky Lark, Barry Zimmer's group had found a Common Snipe, and Jeri Langham's group was looking at a Tufted Duck. While discussing who should go where, a "Black-backed" White Wagtail flew over. An amazing rush of birds within the first hour! More than half of the participants saw most of the birds, but few saw all of them. Such is the nature of birding Attu. The rest of our morning efforts produced, as well, a Ruff on the easternmost point and a Gray-tailed Tattler at the tip. One group tried for the tattler and missed it, and others had missed many of the other species, so we orchestrated an afternoon return for "clean up." Almost everyone who needed to "get" Tufted Duck, Common Snipe, or Gray-tailed Tattler succeeded. Unfortunately, the Sky Lark, Ruff, and wagtail were all MIA.

With everyone exhausted by 9:30, we packed it in. More news tomorrow, when we explore Navy Town, the Peaceful River, and Murder Point.

Day 9, September 15, 2006. Day 2 on Attu.

Our second full day on Attu, this was our first day exploring the Massacre Bay/Coast Guard Station area. One team of 35 checked the Casco Cove and Murder Point area; another team worked Peaceful River, the runways, and the Coast Guard Station; and a third team hiked the Henderson River valley. An additional team of two leader scouts checked out Alexai Point, where little seemed to have changed from the previous day and the rare birds were actually scarcer.

The bird excitement started early again today. At first landing, some groups had a cooperative pair of White (Black-backed) Wagtails foraging along the beach. This species has nested irregularly on Attu in recent years, and this pair was certainly behaving like nesters. It got even better later. Sometime around 9:30 a Tringa sandpiper flew over the "wagtail" group giving a mellow, two-noted call. Thede Tobish, who has the most western Alaska experience of any birder on the ship, quickly called the ID—Spotted Redshank! The bird was followed with scopes until it landed briefly on the beach of Loaf Island, and a few individuals in the "wagtail" group had a quick look at it before it took off. The bird then flew overhead again (giving its chu-weet call the whole time) and disappeared in the direction of Henderson Marsh. Afraid of scaring the bird, we set in motion a transfer of all passengers to the Henderson Marsh area. Zodiacs had to pick up participants at each of the other two landing sites and shuttle them to Henderson. This became a massive operation, but ultimately everyone that wanted to see the bird was assembled and the Henderson Marsh search was initiated. It took a long time, but the bird was flushed once and heard calling distantly once. Finally, at 2:30 p.m., the bird came flying in and landed in the marsh. Leaders locked on the spot and waited. Another massive assembly was underway and by 4:00 we had 40 people ready and waiting for the second grand redshank flush. Victor himself explained the plan: we would sit quietly and watch, Thede Tobish and Lisa Oakley would flush it towards us for in-flight views, and surely the bird would select Smew Pond (right in front of us) as its next landing site. Thede and Lisa slowly worked their way towards the bird or, at least, the place where it had landed an hour-and-a-half earlier! They canvassed the entire northeast side of Henderson to no avail and, eventually, a backup team joined them. Three leaders and several participants fanned out to cover the unchecked portions of the marsh. One person walked up a small creek and when he came around a bend suddenly found the bird quietly feeding in the stream. It stayed put for a minute or so before finally taking alarm and flying out. Fortunately for all, it is a distinctive species in flight, looking quite a bit like a Greater Yellowlegs but with a plover-like call and a white wedge up the back like a dowitcher. Magically, the bird landed exactly where Victor had predicted and the search was over. For the next two hours we had scope studies of the redshank in perfect light, and were even able to shuttle additional people who had chosen not to come earlier. This was a classic Attu experience, with teams of people assembling on a rare bird and maneuvering to get good views for everyone. Spotted Redshank is a rare migrant in the western Aleutians, primarily in spring where the Attu high count is four. Attu has but one previous fall record, from September 26, 2000. It has turned up rarely across the United States, in places like California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, but is predictably seen only in Alaska.

The grand Henderson Marsh stomp turned up other goodies as well. Chief among them was Wood Sandpiper, another rare Asian shorebird that was a life bird for most of the group. An eclipse-plumaged Eurasian Wigeon landed in Smew Pond with the redshank at one point, and a good number of Common Snipe (the Eurasian species recently split from Wilson's Snipe) were flushed by the various parties.

The weather today was, if anything, too nice: sunny, temperatures in the upper 50s and low 60s, with very little wind. Although the fine weather made for enjoyable birding, we were all hoping it would deteriorate. Bad weather brings good birds, and a little bit of rain, fog, snow, sleet, hail, or wind would work in our favor for the next day's birding. We all went to bed praying for a storm to add to the excitement even more.

Spotted Redshank
Spotted Redshank

Day 10, September 16, 2006. Day 3 on Attu.

On our third day the leaders consulted and decided that birds had been coming too easily. In order for our group to fully appreciate the wonders of seeking birds on Attu, we would need to ensure that we had one day without a big chase, one day without a fantastic Siberian vagrant—one slow day. Today was that day. It is a lot of work to find birds on Attu, and to experience another day with rarities falling into our laps would be to miss out on the feeling of hard work that is so rewarding.

The weather was nothing short of perfect and many of us birded much of the day in short sleeves. The little bit of wind that picked up was just enough to keep it from being downright hot. Many of us explored farther than we had in previous days, with some groups reaching Blue Robin Canyon far to the south and others reaching Gilbert Ridge up to the north. The birds seen included some nice finds. New for our 2006 Attu list were Common Loon, Red-necked and Horned grebes, White-winged Scoter, and Pacific Golden-Plover. Repeat rarities included Spotted Redshank and Wood Sandpiper, as well as Gray-tailed Tattler, Eurasian Wigeon, White Wagtail, and Thick-billed Murre. Several people were able to add these species to their life lists today. My group enjoyed a group of passerines hopping about on a rusty cart. All five commonly breeding songbirds (not counting Common Raven) were feeding together on the edge of this cart: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, Song Sparrow, and a seemingly out-of-place Winter Wren.

Day 11, September 17, 2006, Day 4 on Attu.

Larry Balch has been to Attu approximately 27 times, so when Larry gets a life bird, you know you've had a good day. Today, we had a good day!

This was another day of rare birds creating excitement and chaos—just the kind of day we hope for here on Attu. The Henderson River Valley group disembarked first and sent one party south to the warehouses (hoping for Black-backed Wagtail) and the rest of the group to the north and the Henderson Valley. The northern group was faring pretty well, and as we approached Smew Pond we realized that the juvenile Spotted Redshank was feeding quietly in the south side of the pond. A careful approach gave us spectacular looks, and it was a life bird for some who had missed it on previous days. Then the call came, somewhat crackly since we were behind the Brambling Bluff ridge: "Baikal Teal at the warehouse." Larry Balch's party had found it, and Dave Sonneborn and I turned to our group, gave directions, and said "you're on your own—go as fast as you can." We were afraid it might flush, since Attu ducks are notoriously skittish. Amazingly though, everyone arrived and everyone had great looks.

During cocktails in the evening, Larry Balch recounted the amazing story of the bird's discovery. They had walked along the beach and searched all around the warehouse for the wagtail, and eventually decided to continue on to the south and look for it on the beach. As they headed south he noticed two ladies hanging behind, but eventually they caught up. The group found the wagtails, watched them in the scopes, had a bonus japonicus American Pipit (a distinctive subspecies from Asia) and prepared to continue birding. At about that point, Judy Sullivan and Diane Craig came up to Larry and said, "Would Baikal Teal be a good bird?" Larry, his curiosity piqued, said that it certainly would, since it would be a lifer for him as well as for 3 out of the other 4 Attu veterans on the trip. He couldn't help but inquire as to why they would ask such a question. "Well, we saw one back there." Ummm, where? Judy and Diane started to describe the bird and then remembered that Judy had taken a picture. It apparently took a few minutes and quite a bit of teamwork to get the photo zoomed up to an identifiable image, but once that was done, Larry realized that their identification was correct and returned post haste to the spot. No teal. No duck of any kind. In fact, the pond was so small that it didn't look like it would ever have a duck. Someone suggested that the teal may have walked into the grass adjacent to the pond, which drew a crack from Larry that maybe a crake or a rail would walk in that grass, but not a teal. Never a teal. Nonetheless they started to walk around the pond to check and make sure, and as soon as one step was taken towards the grass, the teal walked out. "FREEZE!" Larry shouted, and the four people closest to the bird did just that. Larry must have had an authoritative tone, because when I arrived 45 minutes later those people were still frozen like statues on the edge of the pond while the rest of us watched the bird from a distance, exchanged high fives, and took photos.

Our standby rarities performed for other groups. Spotted Redshank was seen well several times. Wood Sandpiper was flushed up from Henderson Marsh. Two different Gray-tailed Tattlers were located along the beach. A Eurasian Wigeon was feeding in Smew Pond in the morning. "Black-backed" White Wagtail was located feeding along the beach and along the Coast Guard Station, and seen well by some. Two new birds created some excitement. As David Wolf disembarked at Peaceful River with a zodiac full of people, a small bird was seen scurrying on the beach. It turned out to be a Bluethroat, probably a young male, and one of few records for Attu. This is an Old World thrush that breeds in remote wilderness south of the Brooks Range, but was discovered around Nome in 1987 (by a VENT tour group, amazingly enough) and has since been found there consistently. A lucky few saw it before it scurried into the grass; they are extremely secretive and it was not a surprise that it was never refound. Another migrant passerine along the beach was an American Pipit. It was not just our standard American Pipit, since this one had well-marked streaking, a strong malar, pink legs, and faint streaks on the back. Sometimes called "Siberian" Pipit, the subspecies japonicus is a rare migrant in western Alaska (accidental in California) and a potential split. Leaders that heard the bird's call were struck by how different it sounded from "our" American Pipits.

Baikal Teal
Baikal Teal

Day 12, September 18, 2006. Day 5 on Attu.

Today we were again off to an early good start. Before most groups had even loaded, Larry Balch called from Navy Town asking, "Does anyone want to see a Snowy Owl?" A well-marked juvenile bird was perching on old World War II debris at our central landing site and was a real crowd-pleaser. Most of the participants saw this bird before heading out for their own explorations.

It wasn't long afterwards that my group arrived at Smew Pond. The Spotted Redshank was feeding in its "usual" spot and seemed to have become accustomed to groups of tourists gawking at it. We watched it spend about five minutes trying to swallow an oversized minnow that seemed to be stuck in its gullet. We were worried we might have to administer emergency care, but eventually the fish was swallowed and we can report that our redshank did live to see another day.

Another massive rarity chase was set in motion when we glanced through the mist and fog to the back side of Smew Pond where a mid-sized shorebird was foraging. It turned out to be a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, an Asian species that we had expected to see before this and which we had begun to worry that we would miss. Sharp-taileds are uncommon migrants throughout western Alaska, and can even be found predictably in the Pacific Northwest states during September and October, but they are accidental elsewhere in the country. It was a welcome lifer for many of the participants, so groups started converging on Smew Pond. Almost everyone got the bird immediately, but when one of the last groups arrived we had a bit of a scare. The Sharp-tailed flew upriver and was lost from sight for about 20 minutes. We tried to carefully walk the riverbed to flush the bird again, and some of us carefully scanned the pond edge in case it had returned to its favored spots. Even when we knew where it was the Sharp-tailed had been very difficult to spot, and continuously moved in and out of the grasses at the edge. Perhaps it was not surprising then that the bird was missed. I had been the appointed riverwalker, and when I reached the pond I decided to try playing its call since it had earlier shown some level of tape response. As soon as I keyed up the iPod a shorebird started flying directly for me from the far side of the pond. It turned out to be the Sharp-tailed, and on its return visit it gave great looks to the worried recent arrivals and lifted a great burden from the leaders' shoulders. We spent a long time absorbing its key field marks, which sunk in especially well for those of us that had carefully studied similar Pectoral Sandpipers in previous days.

Several groups undertook ambitious afternoon walks. My group headed up Henderson Valley to Bird Canyon and Lake Elwood. Lake Elwood produced another new bird for the trip: an American Wigeon. This was perhaps the only time that I had seen Eurasian Wigeon (2) outnumber American (1), and it was one of the better comparative studies I have had. The gray head of the American contrasted markedly with its breast (little to no contrast on Eurasian). Almost on command, the American rose out of the water and flapped, revealing its diagnostic white underwing. Our other neat find on that long walk was a second Snowy Owl, this one a pure white adult sitting high on the rocky cliffs of Terrible Mountain.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Kittlitz's Murrelet
Kittlitz's Murrelet

Day 13, September 19, 2006. Day 6 on Attu.

Today was our last full day covering the greater Coast Guard station area and our three groups (the pipits, wagtails, and cuckoos) divided up to cover the three major sections. The morning was rather wet, and there were periods of wind and rain that almost recalled the weather that had been predicted for Attu. To be sure, our group was incredibly lucky with the wonderful weather conditions during our time there. The Spotted Redshank was again in position at Smew Pond; it seemed to have become accustomed to our presence and allowed closer approach-a welcome change from its first day when it would flush at almost any distance.

There clearly was an arrival of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers overnight, possibly migrant birds that were grounded by the inclement weather. The Smew Pond group had four Sharp-taileds, including at least a couple that literally "dropped from the sky" in front of them. Along Debris Beach we found three Sharp-taileds together and found them to be incredibly approachable. After prolonged scope views at 100 feet we closed the distance to about 20 feet while the birds unconcernedly foraged on the upper part of the beach. As we moved down the beach, a fourth Sharp-tailed appeared and joined the other three, and later in the day their number had swollen to seven. Photographers had a field day with these birds, which remained just as confiding throughout the day. Two groups had single Pectoral Sandpipers, and some people were able to study both species in the same day, comparing the brighter plumage, mostly unstreaked breasts, and streaked undertail coverts of the Sharpies.

Day 14, September 20, 2006. Day 7 on Attu. Back to Alexai.

On this final morning groups split up to look for whatever birds had been missed. Some folks birded the warehouse area for wagtails; others returned to Debris Beach hoping for better looks (if that is possible) at the Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, while another group checked Smew Pond and Henderson Marsh. The redshank was not present at Henderson for the first time since its discovery, but other groups managed to refind the Black-backed Wagtails, the japonicus American Pipit, and the Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. At least two new birds were found. One was an adult tundrius Peregrine Falcon, a very pale subspecies that nests in the high arctic and is a very rare visitor to the Aleutians. The other was a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher, another rare migrant on Attu.

During lunch the ship repositioned to place us off the tip of Alexai Point. Our scouting party had been covering the point for most of the day, and other than refinding the Baikal Teal and having an interesting peep that flew off before it could be conclusively identified, they were having a slow day. We disembarked and split into two parties: one to go see the three Tufted Ducks and the other to check the runway. The Tufted Duck group was successful and everyone had great looks at the birds on the water. Just as they were finished looking, the scouts called in an exciting report. They had refound the small sandpiper and it was a juvenile Red-necked Stint! Amazingly, it was on the same stretch of beach that had had the Western Sandpiper on our first day. We rushed over there, along with two zodiacs of people who had tried to skip the Alexai Point effort (when they thought Tufted Duck was the best bird on the point). The entire mass of people rushed to the beach where the stint was obligingly foraging in the kelp. The scouts had identified the bird by call and by plumage, but the question of Little Stint was still raised. Since this was a fairly bright Red-necked, the identification was not straightforward, but we all noted this bird's dull wing coverts contrasting with the bright scapulars, the fairly indistinct supercilium that was not split, the grayish wash to the sides of the breast, the shorter and slightly decurved bill, and ultimately the call. I used an iPod to elicit a call response from the stint, and it perked up nicely and called back, eliminating any hope for Little Stint.

Red-necked Stint
Red-necked Stint

After enjoying the stint we hoofed it back to the boat and motored west to Ettienne Bay. Thede Tobish had suggested to the team of leaders that we try Ettienne as an alternate location to land. Since we had spent nearly a week in the Massacre Bay area, we were happy for a change of pace, especially since Ettienne was at the far southwestern tip and closer to arriving Asian birds. Ettienne also had the allure of being unexplored by birders, so we were eager to put the place on the birding map. The trip west was fairly uneventful for seabirds, although I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a Parasitic Jaeger chase a Peregrine Falcon, then seeing the tables turn as the Peregrine chased the jaeger, and then seeing it switch again. One highlight as we entered Ettienne was a Whiskered Auklet that Steve Heinl spotted, which is known from just two prior Attu records.

Ettienne Bay was fascinating in that the composition of seabirds was totally unlike that at Massacre Bay. Least Auklets were common in the mouth (we had none off Massacre). The eiders at Ettienne were mostly males, while in Massacre females predominated. And, finally, we had loons-several species of loons. Steve Heinl (again) spotted a breeding plumaged Yellow-billed Loon at a distance, but we motored slowly up to it and everyone got good looks. A second first-summer Yellow-billed was seen as well. And later, while the leaders scouted the shore for possible landing sites and birding areas, three Arctic Loons (adult and three juveniles) were spotted as well. When the birds were called into the ship only a few people were able to find these distant loons, but still, the different bird composition held exciting possibilities for the day that followed.

Sunrise at Alexai Point
Sunrise at Alexai Point

Day 15, September 21, 2006. Day 8 on Attu. New turf and a new bird for all.

On this morning we continued with our "normal" departure schedule (7:30, 7:50, and 8:10) for our Ettienne Bay landings, but this time just formed groups on the beaches as zodiacs arrived. One group proceeded up the river valley (which ultimately led to a lake), another started west down the beach, and the last group was going to work the middens, small marsh, and cliff bases nearest the landing site. Our plans were spoiled almost immediately by a radio call from Barry Zimmer. Barry had hoofed it top speed up the river valley to check the lake to see if anything on the lake could justify the one-mile walk. Just 20 minutes after our first landing Barry had found the bird of the trip. His radio call went something like this: "Uh, Victor, you better get people up here. I have something REALLY good. It's a small Phylloscopus warbler with wingbars and crown stripes, maybe Eastern Crowned Warbler." In a rush of excitement, well before I had time to actually think about the best course of action, I turned to my group and screamed "RUN! If you can run, RUN! This is a REALLY GOOD BIRD!" Barry didn't have a book, but from his description in later radio calls it sounded like Yellow-browed Warbler. Victor's group was already in that direction since they were birding the stream valley, and I set a course for my group up the valley. A call went out to the entire boat to make sure that no one missed the excitement of this find. Those of us that started running slowed to a quick walk fairly quickly, and by the time we arrived Victor's group was huddled watching a clump of weeds that would very occasionally twitch with the motion of some critter inside. "There's a bird in there; we aren't sure yet if it is THE bird, since Barry had it farther up the valley, but we think this is it." It took almost 10 minutes of watching before any of us could get enough of a look to be sure that this was THE bird, and the brief look that I had suggested that Yellow-browed Warbler was the correct identification. I had Yellow-browed Warbler on my iPod and tried playing the call. The weeds seemed to twitch more vigorously as I played the suu-weet call of the Yellow-browed, but it still wouldn't show itself. As the masses continued to gather, frustration mounted since no one was seeing the bird well. Eventually it seemed to almost climb out into view, but once it did, it immediately took flight and flew down the ravine.

Yellow-browed Warbler Yellow-browed Warbler Yellow-browed Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler

We regrouped as quickly as possible and the leaders teamed up to try to refind the bird. Despite the bird's secrecy, it didn't take long to refind it and we again tried to gather the group along the edge of the ravine to view the bird from above. A few people had some quick looks. This scenario was repeated perhaps 10 times, with varying levels of success. The bird would be located in a dense patch of weeds and we would watch patiently for as many as 10-15 minutes. Some lucky people would be watching at just the right moment and would get a look at the head, or the wings, or the tail, or sometimes just the moving shape of a bird low in the weeds. On one occasion, after the bird flew a short distance it started calling and continued calling persistently for almost five minutes, but was so well hidden while it was calling that no one managed to see it. The call was incredibly ventriloquial, and each leader had a different impression for where the sound was coming from, but by triangulating the sound we ended up with a pretty good guess. I was amazed at just how furtive this species could be, especially since I had imagined it more like Willow Warblers in Africa that feed conspicuously in the mid-levels of trees. Perhaps it chose these dense weed patches specifically because there were no trees. In any event, persistence paid off for those that stuck around, and after more than three hours of trying, most of the group walked away with something between fair to good looks (almost no one had an excellent look). The bird was even harder to photograph than it was to see, but we really wanted photos to make sure that similar (but less likely) species like Hume's Leaf-Warbler were fully eliminated. The call perfectly matched those on Hannu Jannes' Calls of Eastern Vagrants CD and was helpful in eliminating Hume's. Eventually a few fair photos were captured and we rushed back to the boat since we had already delayed the departure time significantly.

Back on the boat our spirits soared as Japanese and European field guides were pulled out and the identification was checked and rechecked. This was only a third record for the Western Hemisphere, with both prior records coming from Gambell, Alaska (September 23-24, 1998 and August 20, 2002). Only two people had seen it previously in North America, and it was bird #400 for Dave Sonneborn's Alaska list. It turned out to be the only truly rare passerine that we saw during our week on Attu (Sky Lark and japonicus American Pipit are rare but regular migrants). I am still coming down from the high of seeing such an exciting bird and successfully working as a team to show such a furtive bird to a group of 100.

We had made a point to save time for Stalemate Bank, which is renowned as one of the best seabird spots in Alaska. The deep waters west of Attu are thousands of feet deep, but at Stalemate a seamount rises suddenly to a minimum depth of 33 meters. This upwelling makes it a huge gathering point for seabirds, and albatrosses in particular. We started chumming vigorously as we approached Stalemate and our efforts were well rewarded. A one-time count of 380 Laysan Albatrosses in a 180-degree scan suggested that we may have had nearly 1,000 at once around the boat. Fulmars, Short-tailed Shearwaters, and Black-legged Kittiwakes were also present in the thousands. A smattering of Mottled Petrels were seen at Stalemate, but we had done even better on that species in the hour or so prior to our arrival at Stalemate, and several of the 25 or so that we saw made very close passes. A "Vega" Herring Gull and a couple of Red-legged Kittiwakes comprised the gull rarities at Stalemate. Black-footed Albatross was scarce, with only about 10 seen at the bank; this was a stark contrast to the eastern Aleutians where Black-footed dominated only slightly over Laysan. Best of all, we had two more Short-tailed Albatrosses. One was a subadult, with only a little bit of white coming in on the central back, but the other was a spanking, full-on adult, gleaming white underparts and underwing set off by patches of black in the upperwing, a caramel colored head, and a bubble-gum colored bill. It made a distant pass along the starboard and, for an encore, made a close pass on the port side. We left Stalemate at about 18:00 and had one hour of cruising or so before dark. During that time I counted 48 more Mottled Petrels, giving us a one-day total of 75-100.

Mottled Petrel
Mottled Petrel

Day 16, September 23, 2006. Russian listing.

Outside of the ABA-Area for the first time, it seemed that our birders were a tiny bit less frantic than back in Alaska. Okay, not all of them-others were on the deck at dawn working on their brand new Russia lists. Laysan Albatross, fulmars, Pomarine Jaegers, kittiwakes, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, and a few others were the first additions for many of us. Sometime around 10:00 the rumor (actually, it was no rumor) began drifting around the boat that Pete Dunne and some lucky birders had seen a dark Pterodroma petrel from the bow. No dark Pterodroma was known from Alaska, but Murphy's is known from the west coast of the USA and had been reported from Russia on a VENT Bering Sea cruise back in July. We had looked for such birds carefully in Alaskan waters in the previous days, and their discovery just 150 miles west of the ABA-Area was both exciting and disappointing; we might have had a first state record (if a Murphy's).

The next bird was seen at about 12:45 p.m., when I was sitting down at lunch. Mottled Petrels had been seen by some recently and I brought my scope to lunch on the top deck (a great place to eat and seawatch at the same time). One of my tablemates spotted a Mottled in the wake, but when I got up to look at it my binoculars fell on a dark Pterodroma. After a moment of stunned silence I started shouting, "GET ON THIS BIRD!" The bird cooperatively made several close passes before drifting away, and as the field marks-hooded appearance, double white underwing flash, large size-began to sink in, I started to excitedly stammer, "I think it's a Solander's Petrel!" Although that bird drifted away, we quickly got into position and started spotting more, and this time we were ready with the cameras. Research and photo review confirmed my initial impression-these were Solander's Petrels, not Murphy's. Solander's Petrel is unknown from the ABA-Area (although there have been at least a couple of sight reports) and we were nothing short of shocked to find at least 9 (maybe as many as 18) within a half-day's sail of US waters. This was a life bird for almost everyone onboard, and the birds liked to follow in our wake, which provided for multiple, excellent close-range views as the birds moved towards us in the wake. This proved to be an incredibly exciting conclusion to a great two weeks of seabirding, but all of the leaders were wishing we'd had just a few more hours to try for this species in ABA-Area waters. Actually, Dave Wolf thought he had seen a distant Pterodroma just before Stalemate Bank the previous day.

The Solander's Petrels were far from the only highlight. While studying Solander's from 13:00 to 14:30, several Buller's Shearwaters were seen as well, a species we had seen only once on the previous portion of the boat trip. Perhaps both of these species were associated with patches of warmer waters, but for whatever reason, we didn't see either again until 18:30. At that point at least four more Solander's appeared, along with at least two more Buller's. Two Red-legged Kittiwakes were exciting as well, since the Commander Islands are their only Asian breeding area. Best of all was the last hour of seawatching (18:30-19:30) when several of us stood enjoying at least 75 Laysan Albatrosses and hundreds of fulmars behind the boat, spiced up by prolonged views of Solander's Petrels, regular Mottled Petrels sluicing through the wake, a few Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, many Pomarine Jaegers including our only dark morph birds (one adult plus our only juvenile), a couple of Black-footed Albatrosses, side by side Sooty and Short-tailed shearwaters, and a couple of Buller's Shearwaters. We walked away from this seabird bonanza that several of us agreed was our favorite period of seawatching of the whole trip.

Today was also our grand finale, with several presentations and good-byes. Victor presented his "10 Best Birding Areas" speech and Larry Balch led a "Memories of Attu" presentation. To be sure, we are all sorry the trip is already over (and all sorry that we can't swing back to the other side of the dateline to photograph a Solander's in USA waters!).

Solander's Petrel Solander's Petrel
Solander's Petrel

Day 17, September 24, 2006. Petro.

Dawn met us this morning at the docks of Petropavlovsk ("Petro" for short). This was our disembarkation, but that process put no stop to the birding. Gulls were being identified by the gas lights of the harbor, and the first Carrion Crows were picked out well before sunrise. Best of all, a Middendorff's Grasshopper-Warbler apparently came on board overnight and was glimpsed by a lucky few headed back from the coffee table. Once it was light, many of us waited on deck while Russian customs cleared the ship. Seeing 20+ Slaty-backed Gulls and hundreds of "Kamchatka" Mew Gulls was a personal highlight as a "larophile," but other species like White Wagtail and Eurasian Tree Sparrow may have been more welcomed by some.

Once we officially entered Russia, we boarded tour buses for the airport. It took some hard bargaining, but Victor talked them into some birding stops rather than shopping stops. En route the volcanoes outside of town were magnificent in the bright sun and held a fresh coat of snow (late in coming this year). We couldn't resist a quick photo op. For birding, we selected a river en route to the airport that had a few short roads that we could walk into the trees and fields. Unfortunately, cool temps and foggy conditions made for incredibly slow birding. Olive-backed Pipits were flying overhead with regularity, but identifiable only by their high-pitched calls. Oriental Greenfinches flew overhead a few times too and, in addition to their calls, they could be identified by the extensive yellow in the mid-wing. One group managed to dig out Reed and Rustic Buntings, but mostly the birding was a great exercise in frustration. We were rushed away just as it began to clear, and taken to a shopping mart for souvenirs. The shoppers found, among other things, a Nestle's chocolate bar marked "for men only," which allowed for much speculation as to why the fairer sex was barred from consuming this particular confection.

Some of us just could not be confined inside with Asian landbirds possible in the urban lots, and set about to find what we could. The small group I was with located an Arctic Warbler feeding in a hedge, and while we were relocating that bird a group of three Rustic Buntings dropped in front of us. A short ways further around the hedge, two of us spotted a Willow Tit. The highlight was to come just as it was time to leave. A hint of motion in the low shrubs betrayed a skulking bird whose identity was unclear until it turned slightly to face us: Siberian Rubythroat! This small Asian thrush was at least twice as striking as I had imagined it; its throat was simply brilliant and perfectly set off by the black and white facial stripes. Luckily I had the species on the iPod and was able to coax it high in the bush where it gave great views. After soaking up its brilliance for another few seconds, I dashed to alert the rest of the group. Alas, our guides were pressuring us-it was time to go and we stood the risk of delaying the plane if we didn't leave immediately. We loaded up quickly and rushed to the airport only to wait a solid two hours before boarding. Think of all the other Asian specialties we might have found among the row houses and barking sled dogs!

Our charter flight back was spacious and we were supplied with dinner, as well as bonus chips, M&M's, and peanuts. At least in the back of the plane, where I was sitting, all the giggling and laughter sounded like a high school trip. This was perhaps the most jovial collection of 100 people I have ever been around. It was a pleasure to be a part of such a successful and fun trip. I hope to see some of you again somewhere along the line.

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