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Attu's Smew Pond and Gilbert Ridge in its "green" glory (Barbara Davis photo)

By Phil Davis

Photographs by Barbara Davis and Jim Fowler

This article is dedicated to the memory of John LaVia (1939 – 2000) of Moorestown, NJ. Tragically, John suffered a fatal heart attack on Attu on September 9th during a biking trip to visit the Japanese War Monument. His two sons, Vernon and Jay, were with him on the island. The next day, following a Coast Guard honor guard, the family departed Attu aboard a chartered corporate jet for the return home.

Geographic Background. Most avid North American listers are well aware of Attu, Alaska, even if they never visited it. Attu is the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain, the undersea volcanic mountain ridge that separates the North Pacific from the Bering Sea. The island is located about 1500 miles southwest of Anchorage, the embarkation point of most Alaskan birding expeditions. The Russian Commander Islands lie about 200 miles to the west, with the Kamchatka Peninsula another 230 miles further. The Siberian coast, breeding grounds of many Eurasian birds, is only about 500 miles to the northwest. The Kuril Islands, the northernmost tip of Japan, are about 800 miles to the southwest.

Attu’s location in Aleutian Islands and proximity to Asia © Microsoft Encarta
Attuvian Trivia. Trivia buffs will know that Attu is one of a few western Aleutian Islands that was invaded in 1942 and occupied by the Japanese for 14 months during World War II. Another trivia "factoid" is that at 172 degrees east longitude, Attu is actually in the Eastern Hemisphere meaning that it can be considered as either the westernmost point of United States (based on the geographical center of the US) or the easternmost (relative to the Greenwich Meridian). Think about it … The International Date Line doglegs west to include Attu and the western Aleutians within the North American time zone framework.

Lay of the Land. Attu is one of four Near Islands, so named by the Russians in the 1700s because they were the Alaska islands nearest to Russia. Attu is a fairly large and rugged island, about 40 miles east-west and 16 miles north-south with craggy mountain peaks in excess of 4,000 feet. There are no villages or permanent inhabitants on the island; that means no motels, no rental cars, no restaurants, and no Starbucks (yikes!). Attu does host a US Coast Guard detachment staffed with about 20 people who operate and maintain a LORAN-C radio navigation transmitter station. These "coasties" rotate in and out on one-year assignments. Attu challenges the mind with a contradiction of names. Landmarks with horrific monikers like Murder Point and Massacre Valley were not results of bloody WWII battles, but rather from the Russian expeditions of the mid 1700s who dominated and virtually enslaved the native Aleuts. Yet, in ironic contrast, the Peaceful River is sandwiched between such gruesomely named places. Go figure … Today, the Near Islands are a part of the Aleutian Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Attours. For the last 22 years, Attours, Inc., owned by Larry and Donna Balch of Highland Park, Illinois, have sponsored birding trips to the island under a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Charter planes convey birders to the island and once there, transportation is by either foot or mountain bikes, provided by Attours. Birders cover only about 5 – 10% of the island in a series of sheltered coves on the southeast side. The furthest regular birding area, Alexai Point, requires a 10.5-mile bike ride from the base quarters, followed by a 3-4 mile hike, and then a reverse biking return trip. Biking on the island is often through puddles, mud, and gravel so being in "bike shape" is a prerequisite to being able to charge after the rare birds reported from the various birding areas.
Attu and the Near Island group © Microsoft Encarta
Attu birding areas (Map courtesy of Attours, Inc.)
Creature Comforts. Why do birders flock to Attu? It certainly isn’t for luxury! The island was first birded by a few birding pioneers in 1975. In 1978 Attours began sponsoring birding trips with the birders first staying in tents, and then later Quonset huts, but without showers or heat. Eventually, Attours took over the abandoned, gutted Coast Guard LORAN-A buildings that were vacated in 1960 when a newer LORAN-C facility was commissioned on the other side of Casco Cove. Over the years, little by little, Larry and his Chief Engineer, Al Driscoll, installed many creature comforts, eventually even providing hot and cold running water, stoves, heaters, and electric lights, all thanks to electric generators. The "amenities", however, remained outhouses. The base building is a sight that would make your eyes sore and everyone was thankful that an OSHA representative never inspected the place. Participants and staff slept in various sized dormitory-like rooms on double-decker bunk cots. On our trip, one of the male dormitory rooms rightfully earned the name the "snooratorium". Food is very good and ample; hot meals are served for breakfast and dinner. Participants make their own lunch of sandwiches and snacks to carry into the field each day.

Weather. Since Attu lies at about the same latitude as Seattle, its weather is milder than more northerly Alaskan locations. The Aleutians separate the colder, shallower Bering Sea from the deeper, warmer Northern Pacific Ocean, and the clash of sea temperatures and winds creates "the cradle of storms". One of the vagaries of Attu weather is that the wind is always in your face; at least it seems that way. The Aleutian winds can be quite stiff. At the end of a long day, especially when returning from distant Alexai, it’s not unusual to experience gusts of 30 knots in your face, pushing you and your bike backwards. We endured about fourteen days of rain, mostly during the second half of the month. Winds gusted over 90 mph during one storm, and blew over one of the outhouses onto its door; luckily no one was in it at the time!

The Last Visit. Attu has been birded annually in the spring at the peak of migration. This year, Attours also sponsored an autumn trip, only the fourth such fall trip for Attu. This trip was also to be the very last visit by Attours after 22 years. The Federal government had been planning to close down the LORAN radio navigation station for a number of years since the US satellite-based Global Position System is now fully operational and provides worldwide navigation services. Plans had been announced to close the station in 1998 but this action was delayed and then planned again for 2000. In 1999, however, the Coast Guard announced that the station would remain open until at least 2006 to accommodate the Alaskan fishing fleet. Despite the extension, Larry decided that it was just too difficult and too expensive to continue maintaining the Attours facilities. The fall 2000 trip would be the last.

The Plan. My wife, Barbara, and I journeyed to Attu in the Spring of 1998, the year of the incredible protracted "fallout", described by some as the birding equivalent of a 500-year flood. We felt it fitting to make one more trip to experience the fall Attu migration and be a part of the final trip. We planned to bird the island for the entire month of September 2000. Attours would accommodate birders either during the first two weeks of the month (Trip A) or the last two (Trip B), or for the entire four weeks; we chose the latter.

Fall versus Spring Birding. We mentally prepared ourselves that the fall birding would not be as generally exciting as spring trips (especially our banner 1998 trip); the number of species and total birds would be fewer and passerines would be harder to find in the fall island vegetation. Attu is a treeless volcanic island but is covered with grasses, thistles, and other vegetation. In the spring, the island retains its brown winter blanket and sometimes it can also have a significant snow cover. In the fall, however, the island is painted lush green and much of the vegetation can be knee to shoulder-high in places. Birds skulk in this dense cover and they can be very difficult to relocate after being flushed. Walking thru the grasses and soft muskeg is difficult and debris from the war and the Navy’s occupation until 1958 present above and below ground hazards to the unwary. The beaches are heavily covered with rusting mechanical relics, black sand, various sizes of rocks and gravel, and wet slippery kelp that all combine to make difficult work of "beachcombing" for shorebirds. Another seasonal birding difference is the duration of daylight. In September, the days are shorter than in May, imposing de facto limits on birding excursions. For example, in the spring, if a rare bird were found at Alexai Point at 5 pm, there would still be enough time to quickly trek out there, tick the bird, and be back to base by dark, if not in time for dinner. The earlier fall sunsets require more prudent "chasing" decisions.

The Birds. The sections below discuss our island bird sightings, especially the Asian vagrants and western Alaskan specialty species (which are highlighted in capital letters).

Advance Party. Several trip participants took advantage of an opportunity to travel with the Attours "advance" set up party and arrived three days ahead of the rest of our Trip A group. Birding during this period was "on your own" and all of the species found during this period also appeared at some point later in the trip, with one exception—the day before we arrived, a few late ALEUTIAN TERNS we reported soaring around the 600-foot LORAN tower. Other highlights from these days included a male BLUETHROAT that was seen for a short while along the beach by several observers as it was harassed and driven off by a BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL. The wagtail was seen in the exact same territory where one was found on the spring trip, indicating possible breeding.

Trip A. On September 1st, we left Anchorage on schedule onboard a "Reever" and made our refueling stop at Adak. A "Reever" is one of two Reeve Aleutian Airways’ Lockheed L-188 turboprops. This aircraft is the only large-size passenger/cargo plane that can land on Attu’s short 6,000-foot VFR (visual flight rules) runway. The flight plan into Attu is flown as an initial instrumented approach to Shemya Island—a small island 32 miles east of Attu that hosts Department of Defense facilities called Eareckson Air Station. From the air over Shemya, the pilot must be able to see Attu or else turn around and go back to Adak. Rain, wind and fog are permanent western Aleutians fixtures, so getting any plane into Attu, especially on schedule, is always a challenge. After a refueling stop at Adak, our "Reever" took off and pressed on toward the west, but an hour into the planned 90-minute leg, our pilot notified us that the weather on Attu had closed in and we were going back to Adak and then "figure out what to do next". This was an announcement we most certainly did not want to hear.

What would happen next? There were four logical options. One was to return to Anchorage and try again another day, but when? This could vary greatly depending on the weather and Reeve’s scheduling of airplanes and pilots. Reeve has only two L-188 "Reevers" left in their fleet and they are typically scheduled for other obligations. For example, during the Spring 2000 trip, the B Group was delayed in Anchorage for five days, the longest ever Attours delay, while the A Group remained stuck on Attu. A second option was to leave us at Adak while the plane retuned to Anchorage; but again for how long--who would know? At least Adak is in the western Aleutians and offered more exciting interim birding opportunities. Until just about a year ago it was not possible to stay overnight at Adak, which is primarily an operational Navy facility. But, recently, the island was opened to scheduled commercial airline service and a lodge opened that could accommodate overnight visitors (like hunters and fisherman). Upon landing at Adak, however, we learned that some of the lodge was already occupied and could not accommodate our entire group. A third option, used at least once during Spring 1998, was to divert to the Pribilof Islands and either try for Attu again the next day or leave us there until conditions were right for another trip. The fourth and last option was to hope the weather at Attu cleared soon enough that day to allow our pilots to get us there before they reached their FAA flying time limits.

After about ninety minutes on the ground at Adak, we got the word, "board the plane", we were heading for Attu (applause!). Needless to say, this leg of the trip was an anxious one for us … would the weather hold, where would we end up that evening, would we ever really get to Attu? The Reever kept pressing ahead even though, from my passenger seat, the clouds seemed extremely ominous … I was positive we were not going to get in that day. However, lo and behold, we suddenly recognized Alexai Point … we were over Attu. Arrive we did (more applause!), and afterwards we learned that a hole in the weather opened up over Attu just long enough for us to get through and down. Maybe the birding gods were with us? We shall see …

The green color of the island wowed us. It was beautiful, in stark contrast to the brown blanket of spring. On our two-mile walk from the runway to our base, everyone quickly saw our first of many GRAY-TAILED TATTLERS, common Attu fall migrants. The island’s streams and rivers are full of spawning salmon and the tattlers fatten up on the eggs in preparation for their long over water flight to Polynesia.

This article continues on The Next Page (read about the birds and the two potential N. American firsts that marked this last trip to Attu)

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