Attu Island - The last frontier - May 1998

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Sandy Komito

Extracts from his book; "I came, I saw, I counted "

eye browed thrush

"Last night, we all saw a pair of Eye-browed Thrushes by merely looking out the dining room window."



Attu Island is known as the premier migration spot in North America for seeing stray Asian vagrants. The year, 2000 is the last year birders are able to visit the island.

The following extracts are from Sandy Komito's latest book"I Came, I Saw, I Counted" chronicling his exhausting adventures during his North American Big Year quest in 1998. Sandy went on to shatter records in this year tallying a grand total of 745 species (more details about his book at the bottom of the next page).

All photos courtesy of Sandy Komito





May 9th.

It's May, so it's time to start thinking about Alaska. After birding the Anchorage area for the past two days, I'm physically and psychologically ready for the next twenty-nine days which will be spent on Attu Island. The Attu Island portion of the trip can make or break the Big Year. If Attu delivers, as hoped for, this could turn out to be a very good year; if not, I'll pack it in and go back to playing golf for the rest of the summer.

In man's recent past, there have been names that have struck fear into the heart, just at their mere mention. Devil's Island and Alcatraz are to name but two. Some say, Attu Island should be added to the top of this fearsome pair. Attu, the most western of the Aleutian Islands, lies nearly fifteen hundred miles due west of Anchorage. It's so far west, they had to bend the International Date Line to accommodate it. The longitude is just about even with New Zealand!

The Aleutian Islands separate the northern Pacific from the Bering Sea, thus creating two separate bodies of water. Attu is known from earlier times, as the place where the Russians forced the Aleut natives into virtual slavery for their fur trading business. The island still has names like Murder Point and Massacre Bay, thus memorializing what happened at these places long ago. During World War II, the US suffered some of its worst losses of the war, in an effort to recapture this strategically located island.

Today, one can still see foxholes, the remains of military structures and abandoned equipment in various areas. Most of the island is intraversable, with steep mountains rising above three thousand feet and snow-covered most of the year. The ground is covered with a soft layer of tundra grass into which one sinks with each step. The conditions are less than ideal for comfortable living or travel.

Many mornings, we have no water for washing because our water lines freeze during the night. We are housed in a one story, pre-World War II building that becomes a reservoir during and after heavy rains holding water in. Sleeping areas are small and cramped, smaller than those on Devil's Island, where prisoners rioted to protest the conditions. What is Attu really like? It has cold, winter-like conditions, strong winds, nearly daily precipitation, cramped housing, upper respiratory infections that spread like wildfire through the compound, aching muscles as we pedal from place to place over soft sand, rocks, mud, potholes filled with water and the ever present head winds. So why would anyone voluntarily come here and pay thousands of dollars for the privilege? In a sentence, it's for the birds! Birds with exotic names like Siberian Rubythroat, Far Eastern Curlew and Mongolian Plover. Our thoughts are filled with hopes and dreams that we too can see them and add another exciting name to our lists.

May 16th.

After yesterday' strong westerly winds, it is a great relief to find moderate winds today, although still from the west. At nine in the morning, as participants gather outside Lower Base to learn where the various leaders are going, the Attu Casino is now officially open. Jerry Rosenband announces where different leaders are going thus making us the birding handicappers. We now place our bets on which leader will find the birds we need. You bet your time and energy on which "horse" you'll ride. Unlike racing, you can change your bet at any time and can bet on more than one "horse," It's sort of a win/win situation with the payoff being new and better birds for the list. Ah! the all important list!

I start by joining Craig Robert's group at Barbara Point where we see a Peregrine Falcon power-dive after a Tufted Puffin. The puffin, in an effort to escape, hits the water like a rock. As we watch small flocks of Ancient Murrelets and Common Murres bobbing in the calm waters of Casco Cove, our attentions are turned to a Rock Sandpiper and a Ruddy Turnstone, poised on a water-smoothed rock. The peacefulness of the area is soon shattered by a call reporting a Common Sandpiper at Smew Pond, some three miles away.

Everyone else's bicycle seems faster than mine, as I drag along the muddy and sometimes rocky path, made a bit smoother by the hundreds of bicycles that have passed before me. Just before reaching the sandpiper site, I see a dozen people racing away from the sandpiper and learn an Eye-browed Thrush has been seen at Murder Point, a distance of six more miles back from where I came. I manage to get two different views of the sandpiper through telescopes, before leaving and pedalling towards Murder Point. Along the way, I learn they also have three Olive-backed Pipits in the same area.

After parking my bicycle, I begin to trudge up the very steep hill heading towards South Beach and Murder Point. Off to my right, seven or eight people are standing in a semi-circle looking towards where the pipit had been. As they begin to walk towards higher ground, Mike Toochin calls out that he has the bird in his scope. Being the first to reach him, and after studying the pipit rather carefully, I ask him for directions to the site of the Eye-browed Thrush. I do my own version of an old man sprinting across the ever-yielding tundra.

On the north side of a lake between South Beach and Murder Point, I see Dick and Gloria Wachtler, Joe Swertinski and my roommate, Eric Carpenter, all gazing south, looking for birds. Gloria is first to spot another Olive-backed Pipit as it wriggles its way through the tundra grass. I look through Gloria's scope and then return to my vigil. Eric is first to call out "Eye-browed Thrush." "Where?" we all shout in unison. "Right above the big rock." We all then focus on the prized bird. Joe focusses his Kowa telescope on the thrush and after a few moments asks me "Would you like to see it through the scope?" With that, I view the thrush for nearly half a minute. As we try to give others directions as to the bird's whereabouts, two Rustic Buntings fly overhead giving a "chup, chup" call note. Soon, a female Rustic Bunting lands on the ground less than forty feet from where we are standing.

At this point, I'm delighted to have seen all these rare birds but I'm starting to feel a bit apprehensive about being so far away from my bicycle (just in case another rarity shows up somewhere). I, therefore, begin a trek back to where the bike is parked. By lunchtime, a call comes over our radios advising they have discovered a Mongolian Plover near Casco Cove. I'm delighted to be in position to chase it with minimal effort. Others behind me, are doing wind sprints to try and get to their bicycles.

Being among the first to arrive at the east end of the cove, I learn that the plover flew off, shortly after the initial report was made. After more people arrive, a sweep is organized across the rocks and kelp-covered beach in an effort to sight or flush the plover. Instead, we find eight Long-toed Stints and three Temminck's Stints. We check all along the beach, failing to relocate the plover but do manage to find an adult Slaty-backed Gull. We continue towards Barbara Point, where a male Rustic Bunting makes a brief appearance before dropping down into the tall, protective grasses. Wind- driven sleet, which lasts through most of the afternoon, fails to dampen the enthusiasm of any of the participants and we continue searching for whatever birds we can find.

rustic bunting

"Soon, a female Rustic Bunting lands on the ground less than forty feet from where we are standing."


May 17th.

Last night, we all saw a pair of Eye-browed Thrushes by merely looking out the dining room window. This morning starts with light winds still continuing out of the west. With yesterday's overload of birds, I wonder if this could possibly continue. By nine-thirty, I am bicycling to the airport runways, to see a reported Common Greenshank. Just before reaching the runways, I see Gloria Wachtler speeding towards me on her bicycle. "What's up?" I ask. "Pechora Pipit at Pratincole Beach!" and with that, she speeds south along the Casco Cove Road. Deciding to hold off on the Greenshank, I turn my bicycle around and try following her. The distance between us widens as she pours on the speed while I can only mope along.

The way I'm moving it looks like I'm dragging a cinder block with a rope tied to my bicycle.

I eventually arrive at Pratincole Beach and see a long line of birders spread out in an apparent effort to flush the bird that's now out of sight. I look towards Joe Swertinski, who says in a soft voice, "I have the bird in the wrack line." Being the first person behind him, I get to view the pipit in his telescope. We're so close, the bird literally fills half the view. I spend very little time socializing, returning instead to my bicycle and pedaling into the wind. I'm on my way back to the runway ponds some four miles away, hoping the Common Greenshank is still waiting.

I begin my search by checking out a number of Wood Sandpipers but I still cannot find the Greenshank. Joe Swertinski soon appears with his telescope and we check out one more large sandpiper partially hidden in the reeds along the far shore. This turns out to be the Common Greenshank we've all been searching for. I start to move closer to photograph it when I realize that some birders still haven't seen it. Since I don't want to press the bird, lest it fly away, I back off with just a few long-distance, barely identifiable shots. By now, its lunch time so several of us select a resting place out of the wind, overlooking the Peaceful River.

After a relatively short lunch period, Elie Elder tells me, "a Gray Wagtail has been reported by Steve Heinl along the Gilbert Ridge Road." In the opposite direction, towards South Beach, a Red-necked Stint is also reported. Now I have to make a decision. Shorebird or passerine? I opt for the wagtail, some five miles away.

The road is rough and wet with many potholes and several large sections where snow completely covers the road. In one place, I have to push my bicycle for nearly a quarter mile through the soft snow before I can resume cycling.

When I arrive near the base of the Gilbert Ridge Mountains, I see a group of seven people, several hundred yards away, heading towards me. I stop to photograph Gray-crowned Rosyfinch and Eye-browed Thrush before catching up to the group. They report, "No luck with the Gray Wagtail. It was chased by some Lapland Longspurs up one of the ravines and disappeared." That sinking feeling I've had many times before returns. "However, there's a pipit over there," one of the participants says, as he points to a pile of old lumber. We flush the bird a couple of times, seeing its buffy outer tail feathers and prominent white streaking on its back. I realize it's another Pechora Pipit. It's a great bird, but I really want the wagtail. How quickly we become blasé (and the Pechora is a Code 5 bird)! After a while, our leader Steve Heinl suggests we return to check where the wagtail had been. Sure enough, there it is feeding along the edge of a large snow field. I look through Steve's scope a couple of times, satisfied at finally seeing one of the rarest of the North American wagtails.

I need to be in a more central location, in case something else shows up. Bicycling towards the airport runways, I hear a report of a Jack Snipe near Casco Cove. This is a Code 5 bird that demands immediate attention. Five miles of bicycling into the wind means nothing when chasing after an accidental bird such as this one.

As I begin my race, winds of up to fifty miles per hour are blasting me with frozen rain mixed with sleet. The Weather Gods conspire to make me suffer for each of the rare birds I hope to see. I am beginning to get soaked from the driving rain but will not be deterred in my quest for this bird. It seems as though every afternoon has had increasingly strong winds, at times so strong, I have to dismount and just walk my bike.

Upon reaching the Casco Cove overlook, I find a large group of birders sweeping across the tundra. It seems they are concluding the sweep and will continue it tomorrow. It is at this time I learn the bird seen was not a Jack Snipe but a Pintail Snipe. The Pintail Snipe is also a great bird but it's not a life bird like the Jack Snipe would be.

temminck's stint

Temminck's Stint on Attu - Sandy Komito

I return to my bike and slog back to Lower Base for the last three miles, fighting the gale force winds all the way home. After dinner, another Pechora Pipit is discovered on the road just above our quarters. An amazing end to a fabulous day. Not only are the birds of great rarity but the numbers are also most impressive.

May 31st.

It is a restful morning suddenly shattered by the report of a Red-flanked Bluetail in Upper Henderson (West Massacre). Off and running, I fight a strong northeast wind for nearly six miles. Driving my bicycle to a point where the road is virtually washed out, I park it alongside a dozen others. Now begins the nearly mile and a half hike to where drifting snows spread across the road. Half a mile beyond this, I see a line of people so I'm at least going in the right direction. I next have to ford a fast flowing stream, being careful not to slip on the rocks or plunge into areas deeper than eight inches. Slowly walking into the stream seems to cause the fast flowing waters to rise an inch or two above the top of my boots. Therefore, my course of action is to literally run through the water as fast as I can, to a gravel bar on the far side. From there, I find a more or less shallow area and repeat the run. Surprise of surprises! It actually works; no water manages to get into my boots.

Working my way behind the back of the group, I quickly join them. "Is the bird still around?" I gasp. "Yes." "Where?" "Somewhere near the bend in the stream, over there," as they point to the place it had last been seen. I am frankly feeling a bit uneasy about this. It's too easy for a skulking like this one to get away without anyone seeing it.

After a ten minute wait, someone shouts, "There it is, in the willows." All eyes turn to the approximate place, as a couple of people shout directions. "There, it's coming closer to us," but not all eyes can find it. "It's still moving, closer still." "How far?" "Forty feet and closing!" It is then that I get my first good look at the bird. It pauses, looks around, perhaps a bit bewildered, and flies briefly to the top of a willow. It stays for just a few moments before flying down into the willows for better concealment. Judging by the bird's brightness, it appears to be a male in basic plumage. It is an exciting moment as we continue to view the bluetail and get telescope looks at it. All of the sixty people manage to eventually get satisfactory looks at this most uncommon passerine.

The journey back to base is temporarily interrupted by a stop near Brambling Bluff where a group of us study the various waterbirds on Massacre Bay. After the five o'clock radio check fails to provide word on any new birds, we all head "back to the barn." No other reports come in for the rest of the day and I am able to once again try and rest my weary bones. So far, this month, I've been able to add forty-five new birds, bringing my year's total to 645.

If you enjoyed this and would like to read about the rest of Sandy's 29 day stay on Attu or about the other amazing birds Sandy racked up in his record breaking Big Year, his 355 page hard back book "I Came, I Saw, I Counted" with 32 color photos is available by sending $34.95 plus $3.95 shipping and handling to:

Sandy Komito, 41-76 Rys Terrace, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410 USA
Phone orders at (201) 791 5496
Fax (201) 796 6666
or e-mail him at: Skomito@msn.com

SOME USEFUL ATTU WEBSITES:
http://www.attu.com