Update 29 May – Surviving Attu

Now picking up the ‘pen' on third of four flight legs to get me from Adak Island Alaska to Norfolk Virginia (an airport I sure have become familiar with) for two days so of Gulf Stream pelagic birding off of Port Hatteras, North Carolina, before a retracing those flights to Anchorage, then onwards to Nome and Gambell Island. 

When I signed up for the 16 day springtime ‘Attu’ trip about a year ago, I thought it was a no-brainer. Of course I’d get on the Puk-uk and make the three day sail to legendary Attu – everything I’d read from big year birding in the good ole days described it as the must do feature of an ABA big year. But I recognized the gamble involved - I'd be giving away a big chunk of precious Springtime birding action in the lower 48. Although my migrant successes in Florida, Texas and Ohio were good, I left for Alaska without any eastern Empid flycatchers, and short of a fair few key warblers. Not to mention the continuing flow of vagrant rarities hitting the radar. My concerns amplified as the countdown to the planned 12 May departure - first to Adak Island approached, about halfway out  along the enormous chain of Aleutian Islands - then a couple of days of steaming westward on the Puk Uk to reach Attu, not much more than a stone’s throw from Kamchatka, Russia, and a likely stopping point for many Asian and Arctic bird species that get even mildly blown off course during migration. It proved the critical feature of Sandy Komito’s massive big year record during 1998 – sort of the story behind the movie ‘The Big Year’.

I'm writing this communication with nowhere near enough time to do it justice. So following is a very (very) brief snapshot of the trip. 

First and foremost, was it a successful trip? Well, yeah. The results were good, but not 'mega'. I did something like 25 species to my year list, ten or so being Code 3 birds or better. Perhaps the most substantial ingredient in the mix was that due to mechanical problems, we were stranded on Adak island for four days prior to heading off for Attu. Tour leaders John Puschock and Neil Hayward (yes, that Neil!) when to huge measures to ensure that the unscheduled Adak 'leg' paid off as well as possible - and we did see some great birds - top of the list being a pair of Smews. When finally we set sail, we were very lucky to cross paths with a Short-tailed Albatross ‘the’ target bird for any pelagic trip in the region, and a bird that John and Neil had guestimated a one in three chance of finding. We also got the whole list of targeted Alcids, but missed Mottled Petrel – we were probably a bit too early for migrating birds. I’ll eventually write lots about Adak – a mysterious WWII and cold war ex military base of enormous scale, all abandoned, and and ideal scene for an apocalypse zombie film (or world’s greatest paintball skirmish), the pelagic trip, and of course Attu.

But briefly re Attu, it was quite an adventure. Besides John P and Neil, there were 9 birders, including two other big year birders – Christian Hagenlocher and Laura Keene. It was a great group, and I look forward to writing a proper blog entry about the trip and the fun and funny things that happened under JP's watch. Captain Bill Choate and the crew were absolutely fantastic. I think we had about 8 days on the island. On about half these days we rode bicycles, the others we hoofed it. Most days were very windy, wet and miserable! Huge, huge days, with 12 hours of hiking/biking, usually without much to show for the effort. Towards the end we had two full days of westerlies, so our hopes were high. Not much initially, but the final two days saw the wind swing back around from the East, which of course encourages birds to head back to Russia and Siberia. And yet our best results came during the last two days. The last day, in fact, yielded a total of 10 ‘coded’ birds, though only four (only?!) were new for my year, the others had been seen on Attu during the previous days, or earlier in the year on the mainland. The bad news is that I missed three rarities that were seen by one or two people only – and they were very good birds: Eurasian Hobby, Siberian Ruby-throat, and Hawfinch. The rarities that I did score on Attu included Rustic Bunting, Common Snipe, Pin-tailed Snipe, Eye-browed Thrush, Grey-tailed Tattler (go figure), Common Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint, and White Wagtail. 

Some Photos:
Grey-crowned Rosy-finch, dead Sperm Whale, The Puk-Uk at Attu, THE place of Attu birding history where all groups stayed, Attu, some of the guys - me, Captain Billy, Joisy Brandon, Neil Hayward, Rustic Bunting, eye-browed thrush, secret committee meeting of Laysan Albatrosses. Below that, from Adak: Rock Ptarmigan and Sea Otters.