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.
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.
Creature Comforts. Why do birders flock to Attu? It certainly isnt 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, its 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 Navys 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 exceptionthe 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 Attus short 6,000-foot VFR (visual flight rules) runway. The flight plan into Attu is flown as an initial instrumented approach to Shemya Islanda 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 Reeves 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 islands 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.
Continuing on our walk to our quarters, we were next treated to an immediate "megatick". Leader Mike Toochin heard an unusual chip call in the vegetation along Casco Cove. An organized "tromp" of the umbles and thistles flushed out a DUSKY WARBLER, which perched several times, giving people quick looks before flying off. Nice way to start the trip, eh?
Other birds seen briefly over the next few days included a WOOD SANDPIPER, a YELLOW-BILLED LOON, a LONG-TOED STINT, and a RED-NECKED STINT. A single SLATY-BACKED GULL was a regular daily visitor at the mouth of the Peaceful River "keeping company" with the likes of a comely Glaucous-winged Gull. SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS were present at first in small numbers but they increased greatly as the month wore on. A few YELLOW WAGTAILS were briefly spotted. KITTLITZS MURRELETS were present in small number in the waters around the island. A COMMON SANDPIPER was found one day on Alexai Point.
Each day, the Attours birding leaders are assigned to cover one of the five or six basic island birding areas. Participants accompany the leaders on bicycle or, for the walking trip nearest to our base, on foot. The leaders report their progress and findings each half hour by CB radio. "Good finds" are immediately called-in and participants are free to peddle to the other groups, especially if one group discovers a bird that you "need". Sometimes the action is comical, like the "Keystone Cops" with people peddling in all different directions and yelling to each other whats being seeing.
In the aftermath of this summers "Survivor" television series, the leaders sometimes jokingly (?) called Attours participants "contestants". I had threatened Barbara that I would steal the floor after breakfast the first day and announce that we were going to split into two tribes, called the "Mugumakis" and the "Spoonbills" and every day we would vote someone off the island however, if you found ABA Code 5 or North American "first" birds, you would have immunity. Fortunately, Barbara talked me of making a fool of myself well, at least this time!
The fall Attu weather permits birding treks further a field than do spring trips when the lingering winter snows keep the mountain passes and trails closed. Some groups ventured to the 25-foot, titanium Japanese WWII War Monument on Engineer Hill, dedicated to all who lost their lives during the battle and to future world peace. Others peddled and hiked to the further a field Siddens Valley and Chichagof Harbor. A Snowy Owl was seen on this northeast side of the island and ROCK PTARMIGANS were also found at the higher elevations, where they retreat in the fall.
For several years, a male SPECTACLED EIDER has been found on Attu, keeping company with a Common Eider; this year proved to be no exception. The bird was seen regularly off Alexai Point.
Eurasian forms or subspecies are always of interest these days since species are being split with impunity. Notable forms seen on our tip include the "Eurasian" Common Snipe with the white trailing edge on the secondaries; the "Eurasian" Whimbrel with the white streak up the rump and back; the smaller Aleutian form of the "Common" Green-winged Teal, recently split by the British Ornithological Union; one "Kamchatka" Mew Gull, and several "japonicus" (or Japanese) forms of the American (or "Buff-bellied") Pipit (see the August Surfbirds ID article on pipit identification) One or more Harriers were seen during the trip with one bird described by some observers as a Eurasian "Hen Harrier" (with the smaller amount of white on the rump) while another (or maybe the same?) one was later seen and described as a "regular" Northern Harrier. A few SKY LARKS were observed, these being the Asian subspecies rather than the European subspecies that was introduced on Vancouver Island in Canada and in the US on Washington states San Juan Islands.
On Alexai Point, a COMMON RINGED PLOVER stayed for three days, allowing most birders to get very good looks. Alexai also hosted a MONGOLIAN PLOVER early in the month, while later during Trip B a very cooperative juvenile was present at South Beach. A juvenile RUFF provided cooperative looks at the mouth of Kingfisher Creek.
The trip waterfowl highlight was a GARGANEY, seen several times in ponds around the runways. During one observation, the bird flushed and flew in circles around the area in the company of two Mallards for about 10 minutes, allowing good flight study looks.
The "bird of the trip" for the A Group was a GREAT-SPOTTED WOODPECKER, discovered by participant Greg Bretz on September 10th. Greg had eaten dinner during the first seating and then had walked to Murder Point to pick berries. On his way back, he saw a woodpecker (!!!) fly by. Fortunately, he had his radio with him and called it in just as the second dinner seating was finishing dessert. When the word came over the air, the mess hall cleared out in an instant and everyone ran or biked to nearby Murder Point. All participants and staff members got to see this third North America record (each having occurred at Attu!). The bird, a female, was never seen after that evening, perhaps a victim of one of the four or five "Peales" dark-formed Peregrine Falcons that were constantly vigilant. We wondered how many other great vagrants were picked off by the "air patrol" without our knowledge.
A good bird that did not cooperate was a "cuculus" cuckoo, most likely an Oriental Cuckoo. Birders Nelson Dobbs and Tom Driscoll spotted the bird in Henderson Valley. However, just as the rest of the birding cadre arrived en mass, the bird took flight and crested the valley ridge. In spite of concerted attempts, it was not found again. (Perhaps, the Peregrines again?)
Sea watching from Murder Point was a passion of leader Paul Lehman. "Good" sea watching days (days with a strong south wind component and good visibility) yielded views of thousands of LEAST AUKLETS flying in small flocks to and from feeding areas. Peak passage observations were recorded in the 150 birds per minute range. A few fortunate participants were with Paul on the day a WHISKERED AUKLET landed briefly on the rocks of Murder Point before flying away. We heard a rumor that this species might now be breeding on nearby uninhabited Agattu Island, 24 miles south of Attu.
A recently deceased ANCIENT MURRELET was found on Massacre Beach, later determined to be a probable victim of a local Peregrine. The carcass was in excellent shape, as it seemed to have suffered only a couple of clean punctures. On one of our rainy days, participant and college professor, Steve Johnson, demonstrated the art of preparing a study skin, using improvisational tools and supplies. The result was a perfectly preserved specimen that would be donated to the University of Alaska museum collection in Fairbanks.
Trip B. September 16th was the day the "Reever" was due to bring in the Trip B birders and pick up the Trip A participants. The day started like déjà vu of our Trip A arrival. The early morning weather turned sour, forcing the Reever to hold at Adak. Attours secured a bus and took the Trip B participants to a nearby lagoon for some Adak birding. However, in due time, the Reever charged on and broke through a hole in the clouds to land on Attu in the midst of heavy rain.
Trip B brought the worst weather of the month. During Trip A, we had about 3-1/2 days of rain, but during the Trip B two-weeks, the rain days exceeded 10. After only one clear day of birding, a huge storm moved through and grounded Trip B for several days shutting-in everyone. The Attu modus operandi is generally to not bird in heavy rain. Spirits were not high. We kept hoping at least for strong westerly winds, but invariably, they blew from every direction except the west.
One of the biggest trip highlights occurred on September 20th, after the two rain days. Barbara, Eli Elder, and I were birding with leader James Huntington in the area called Barbara Point (no relation!). The day had been slow and disappointing, Barbara and I had considered giving up and heading back to base. Walking along the coast trail, James cut down into a small reedy pond to "tromp out" anything that might be lurking there, as is the method of fall birding on Attu. This pond lies at the edge of the LORAN tower and is called the "Issacson Trackdozer Pond" because of a rusted out WWII bulldozer of the same name that sits near the pond. While James went low, I veered off to tromp the top edge, when suddenly I saw the silhouette of flying bird peak over the edge of the vegetation and then drop down at the edge of the pond. My total viewing time was probably about one second. All I new for sure, was that this bird was very different and was not one of the ubiquitous island Song Sparrows (M. m. maxima), of the very large form found in the western Aleutians. When I made eye contract with James he said, "Did you see that? It looked like a RAIL! with dangling legs and fluttering flight". Wow! A rail! No rails have ever been recorded on Attu this had real potential. Since there were only four of us in this group, James called for Jerry Rosenband, the senior Attu birding leader, who was with a small group over in nearby Casco Cove. Reluctant to call in everyone without refinding the or providing some better confirmation of the identification, the radio traffic was most interesting
James: "James to Jerry"
Jerry: "Jerry, here. Go ahead, James"
James: "Jerry, can you head over this way?"
Jerry: "What have you got?"
James" "Id rather not say right now"
To seasoned Attu birders, all of who carry their own radios, the last transmission was a four-alarm, "general quarters", battle call. They knew that one of the leaders had seen something unusual but wasnt quite ready to put out the word. Within minutes, the top listers began converging on the spot to become a part of whatever was going to happen. Even if it was a false alarm, it was OK there wasnt anything else exciting going on this day.
A medium sized group first searched the dry perimeter of the pond, where the bird was last seen landing, but without success. Then a search of the pond itself was tried, but also to no avail. By now, the word had spread across the island. It was decided to wait until later in the day and try again for the benefit of all. Late that afternoon, a larger group surrounded the pond and slowly closed in. Sure enough, a Porzana rail flushed, briefly showing itself! It was decided to try again the next morning.
Each time the bird was seen, people "painted in" more and more of their own composite view of it. Pouring over field guides and other references in the Attours library that evening, it was clear that this was either a Baillons Crake or a Little Crake. Baillons has a extremely wide distribution and migratory range, although it does not appear to extend into Kamchatka or the northern Japanese islands. Neither crake had received any panelists votes in the upcoming Birding article "Next Ten Birds of Western Alaska". Initially, some inconsistencies were noted in terms what observers saw regarding a few of the field marks. For example, during the first group observation, I clearly saw, in flight, a white trailing edge to the secondaries, but hardly anyone else did, apparently. This led me to later postulate the "Second Crake" theory. I surmised that there were really two crakes, with the second crake being found "behind the grassy knoll" but I was never able to prove it. <GRIN>. Later, however, others also saw trailing white edges.
On the morning of the 21st, the entire Attours group assembled and again circled the pond and closed in. The bird did flush and was seen briefly, again. That afternoon, however, the bird was flushed back and forth several times, allowing excellent looks and presented the field marks that isolated it as a juvenile BAILLONS CRAKE (Porzana pusilla), a North American first.
Later that afternoon, an EMPEROR GOOSE was seen on Puffin Islandmore birds (up to seven) were seen later in the trip. A female/immature BLUETHROAT was spotted by Thede and Lisa Tobish and Buzz Scher on Gilbert Ridge, but an assembled hoard of birders were not able to relocate it. BRAMBLING reports were starting to trickle in, however, none were very cooperativemostly flybys.
Paul Lehman found a nice fall Attu bird, a BLACK-HEADED GULL in Massacre Bay. A TUFTED DUCK was seen briefly in Smew Pond in Henderson Valley.
An OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT was seen by a group traveling to visit the Monument, but those that looked later did not relocate it. Thede, Lisa and Buzz found another great island bird a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (!) a first record for the Western Aleutians. Similarly, Dave Sonneborn found a dark, western form Savannah Sparrow by the runway. At least our north winds brought in some birds, even if they were not Asian vagrants!
Back at the sea watch, Paul Lehman spotted PARAKEET AUKLETS (a few had also been seen briefly off Alexai Point earlier in the trip) and a nice ARCTIC LOON was viewed off South Beach and later in Casco Cove. A juvenile SPOTTED REDSHANK briefly made an appearance on South Beach for the lucky few that were present. A cooperative juvenile RED-THROATED PIPIT allowed close study, also on South Beach.
Although Attu is advertised as treeless, there really is an "Attu National Forest" consisting of two eight-foot high Spruce trees that were planted in Navy Town during the war. As our group peddled by one day, Paul Lehman spotted a Merlin, the dark stucklei form, perched on the top of one of the trees it had succeeded in finding the only trees on the 160-square mile island.
On September 26th, Jerry Rosenband excitedly called in from Casco Cove, "an accipter, heading toward Murder Point". No North American accipiters have ever occurred on Attu; the greater likelihood is that any accipiter most probably would be an Asian vagrant. Birders still inside the base quarters flew outside to try for a look. Soon, everyone close by was on this bird, as it headed from Murder Point directly towards us at the base. It circled and climbed directly overhead, staying in view for maybe five full minutes allowing many people to note lots of field marks on the bird. On the unofficial evening tally, this bird was carried as an "accipiter, sp", however, most people are convinced that it was indeed a EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK (Accipiter nisus). The only real confusion seemed to be over the size of this lone bird. Northern Goshawk seemed to be clearly ruled out by visible field marks and the smaller Asian accipiters (Japanese and Chinese Sparrowhawks) are much too small for this bird. It will be interesting to see how observers write this up and how the Alaska records committee ultimately deals with it.
At the end of the month, on September 29th, the day before our planned departure, it rained all day but cleared that evening as we packed for the morning trip back to Anchorage. All looked good, the weather reports from Reeve in Anchorage seemed good, and the plane was ready. It looked like a "go". Wrong! The next morning, the weather socked in and Reeve called off the attempt. The next window when a Reever was available to come get us was Tuesday, October 3rda three-day delay. So, we now entered what is called the "bonus bird" period, what great sightings would we find to compensate us to the delay?
That night, we experienced the most serendipitous sighting of the trip. Chief Engineer, Al Driscoll, takes great pride in the Attu hot tub that he lashed together years ago from miscellaneous materials. The hot tub had been fired up that evening to celebrate the end of the trip. Just before lights out, leaders Tim Schantz and Mike Toochin walked by and saw something scurrying around on the ground next to the tub. At first, they thought it was just an island rat, but then Tim recognized it as a FORK-TAILED STORM-PETREL. He reached down and grabbed it with his hand. The evening was quite foggy and the lights around base probably attracted it, as is common with many storm-petrels. Tim and Mike brought the bird in to the base social room and those few of us still awake "night owls" were treated to a great inspection of the bird in the hand, before it was released. (Yes, everyone knows that it cant be "counted" on ABA lists until 24 hours after release!) Later, I told everyone that the bird was really attracted by Als "oil slick" that he had created in the tub!
The Famous Attu Hot Tub with (left to right), Leader Jim Fowler, Chief Engineer Al Driscoll (standing), Leader Mike Toochin, and "contestant" Jerry "Mountain Goat" Pilny (Barbara Davis photo)
Ironically, the storm that ruined our planned departure brought with it the only really good west winds of the entire month the winds we had hoped for each time a storm blew in. Little did we know how fruitful this would prove to be.
The morning of October 1st was dedicated to "tromping" out a probable Phylloscopus warbler that Paul Lehman had flushed near the runway in the rain the previous afternoon. The quick looks of the bird seemed to indicate the possibility of a "good" species; in fact, some field marks seemed to support a possible Willow Warbler. But, alas, Attu fall birding syndrome struck again and the bird was never refound. The rains intensified and many birders (yours truly, included) retuned to base at noon to dry out.
Later that afternoon, a radio report was relayed to base of a DUSKY TRUSH in Henderson Valley, a great bonus bird to compensate for the extended stay on the island. However, a few damp birders (including your scribe) decided to continue to "dry out" since we did not "need" this bird, having seen one very well in 1998.This was a fatal mistake, because unbeknownst to us, the other 90% of the participants who journeyed to Henderson to see the thrush were rewarded with a second great "bonus" bird while they waited for everyone to arrive at the site. Leader James Huntington leaned his head back, looked up, and then shouted "FORK-TAILED SWIFT!" Indeed, one was circling Henderson Valley and continued to do so for about 20 minutes. However, we at base did not get the word via radio until too late from Henderson, the "black hole" of Attu radio communications. [However, via the CB radio we were easily able to follow the adventures of truckers from California and Arizona and those of Japanese fishermen. I figured that the fisherman were saying (in Japanese), "I cant see the fish hooks of the back of the boat, due to all those pesky Short-tailed Albatrosses flying around" but I was never really able to prove this]. Later the same day, a fairly cooperative RUSTIC BUNTING was also located in Henderson Valley and gave many participants their life look at this species. Not a bad set of three bonus birds.
The Common Birds of Attu. To complete the species list, locally common and more regular North American birds of Attu included Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Red-necked Grebe, SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER, Pelagic Cormorant, RED-FACED CORMORANT, "Aleutian" Canada Goose, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Common Eider, Harlequin Duck, White-winged Scoter, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Pacific Golden-Plover, Wandering Tattler, Pectoral Sandpiper, ROCK SANDPIPER, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, Parasitic Jaeger, Glaucous-winged Gull, Black-Legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, TUFTED PUFFIN, HORNED PUFFIN, Common Raven, Winter Wren, American Pipit, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, and Common Redpoll.
Unusual North American Species. One uncommon Attu species, found on the island during our trip, was a Buff-Breasted Sandpiper. One stayed for several days feeding on grasses at the edge of the runway. A second bird was seen briefly later in the month on South Beach. Other good Attu "island" birds included Long-billed Dowitchers and Sanderlings.
The Ones That Got Away. Several Arctic Warblers were probably seen, but not very well nor by many people. Thede Tobish kicked up a possible Leucostella warbler (maybe a Middendorfs?) near Big Lake on our last day, but it could not be relocated, either. Typical fall birding frustrations! A controversial bird, "The Murrelet", was seen well by several participants at a distance in Casco Cove and was described as a Long-billed Murrelet; however, the sighting didnt make it onto the official trip list. Finally, at dusk on the last night, Thede may have seen a possible Jack Snipe in flight ... but it was also never refound.
The Return. It was tough loading up all the bikes, and bunk cots into the plane for their trip back to Anchorage and to the auction block. We flew straight back to Anchorage, with no refueling stops, actually bringing us in early. First order of business ... the Starbucks in the terminal; second stop the Cheers bar for ice-cold draft beer, burgers and fries!
The Last Chapter. Under agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Attours had to remove or burn everything that was brought to the island over the past 22 years. Next year, bulldozers will flatten the buildings. When we departed a dozen Attours staffers stayed on to demolish the base and pack up the non-burnables for return to Anchorage in a few days on the very last Reever trip. Im told that some of the burnable material fires could probably have been seen on Shemya. As a very fitting end to the Attours birding era and a goodbye to the island, Tim Schantz and Mike Toochin discovered another GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (a male, this time), just two hours before the Reevers final departure on October 5th.
The Future? Attu will likely continue to be a "port of call" for the tour boat, World Discoverer, on the Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours, "Fire and Ice" birding cruises that depart from Kamchatka in May and sail along the Aleutian Chain. However, the short day or two stay and the lack of bicycles will drastically limit the birding coverage of the past. Rumors are circulating of a possible new tour operator that will sail on a ship out of Adak and moor in Attus coves putting birders ashore via Zodiacs. Given the Attuvian and Aleutian weather, this could be a real challenge we shall see.
Interesting Attu-related Web Sites
The Attours Home Page: http://www.attu.com/
This site contains lots of historical information on the birds of Attu and birding with Attours.
Attu, Alaska Gallery: Images of the Island A Birding Paradise! http://www.tsuru-bird.net/attu/
This web site contains lots of photos of landscapes, the quarters and people birding on the island with Attours. It gives you a real good feel of what Attu is like. [These photos were all taken on a spring trip. We did not see falling snow during our September trip and the island was green and lush, not brown as it is in May].
Attu Home Page: http://www.hlswilliwaw.com/aleutians/attu-homepage.htm
Attu was the site of the second "bloodiest" battle of the war (next to Corrigador). This web site is maintained by a WWII veteran and contains lots of interesting information about Attu. There is a fascinating book entitled, The Thousand-Mile War by Brain Garfield that covers Alaskas role in WWII and specifically the war in the Aleutians.
Current Weather Conditions at the US Air Force Eareckson Air Station Shemya Island, AK: http://weather.noaa.gov/weather/current/PASY.html
Shemya Island is only 32 miles east of Attu. There are people stationed on this island, but they have little contact or interface with the Attu US Coast Guard personnel. Even though Shemya is close to Attu, the weather conditions can be vastly different. The Shemya airport and facility sits on a flat unprotected bluff, whereas Attu is in a cove that is protected by mountains to the north and west. As a result, the weather on Attu is generally significantly milder than on Shemya, where conditions tend to be more windy and foggy.