Biggest of Big Years: a postscript (part 3 of 4)

A final wrap-up - part 3 of 4
11 October, 2017 

The highlight of my Springtime birding was unquestionably the adventurous expedition to Attu Island aboard the intrepid Puk-Uk, under the guidance of John Puschock and his likeable side-kick and Big Year record holder, Neil Hayward, along with Native American ship captain Billy Choate. The dream team!

Big Year or not, Attu Island represents the outer frontier of the American rare bird chaser, with close proximity to the eastern-most Asian flyway.  

Ship cook Nicole worked her magic through rough seas and trying conditions aboard the Puk-uk, transforming the otherwise rugged adventure to Attu Island to a fun and almost sophisticated affair.

Now thar's something you don't see often at sea. Deceased Sperm Whale.
And Black-footed Albatross calling attention to my crooked horizon.

The mix of gutsy birders willing to challenge the lengthy boat trip through the volatile Aleutian waters from Adak to Attu Island and back again, and to take on eight challenging days of hiking and bicycling across the accessible parts of Attu included two other birders on the ABA Big Year trail: Laura Keene and Christian Hagenlocher. Both proved to be larger-than-life and inspirational characters to me, and for the rest of the year the three of us crossed paths often, chartering boats, and making combined efforts to find some of the most challenging of birds, and today remain great friends.

Legendary Attu Island at the end of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska

One of the rarities from Attu: Rustic Bunting

Following my Attu adventure, I had just four days to undertake the long sequence of flights to and from Norfolk Virginia, with added three-hour drives through thunderstorm conditions to and from Hattaras, North Carolina for two days of make-or-break Spring seabirding in the Gulf Stream with famed birder-skipper Brian Patteson. Back in Anchorage for a brief airport slumber, I then made the connecting flight to another important Alaskan birding Island: St Lawrence, and the Yupik village of Gambell. At Gambell, within sight of Russia, I joined Aaron Lang’s Wilderness Birding Adventures group for a second shot at stray Asian migratory birds. Between a series of five organized Spring and Autumn trips with organized birding groups, together with independent missions, I spent a total of 11 weeks on the remote Alaskan islands in 2016, accumulating a disappointing total of only 11 coded species for my year-list. Weather conditions are a huge factor in Alaskan island birding outcomes, and despite earlier expectations of a positive El Nino weather pattern impact on bird diversity, the year unfortunately proved to be one of the worst on record for delivering the strong westerly winds required to blow migrating Asian birds far enough off course to reach these outer-most ABA outposts for a reprieve.

Birding, Gambell-style

The bone-yards of Gambell - where many first-for-ABA-area Asian birds
have been found in years gone by. The ancient walrus, seal, and whale bones are excavated by locals in search of fossilised walrus ivory and artefacts. The resulting 'gopher hole' topography encourages plant growth and attendant insects, making ideal hangouts for exhausted migratory birds.

Positive waves
Throughout the year I tried to face my demons and get out to sea as often as possible. At one time I was notorious within the Australian birding scene as the guy who always lost it on sea trips, and often in a most unseemly and audible manner. Experience and pre-journey ingestion of enough preventative medication to sedate a horse, have contributed to a big improvement in my seamanship, and my 2016 win-loss record for seasickness was nearly perfect. Over the course of the year I spent a total of 38 days at sea, comprising 26 individual trips. I boarded every conceivable type of vessel, from six-passenger outboard-motored punts to the large and comfortable charters headed by seabirding legends like Debi Shearwater, Alvaro Jaramillo, Brian Patteson, and Dave Povey. On two occasions I luxuriated in 1,000 passenger cruiseliners, telescoping out to sea from the lower decks for a spectacular diversity of seabirds and cetaceans. My American pelagic memories are highlighted by a mind-blowing 20 species of plump Alcids (Puffins, Murres, Murrelets, and Auklets) and a mix of 27 species of graceful shearwaters and petrels, and surface-fluttering storm-petrels.

The annual early Spring Wings Birding Tours pelagic birding mission aboard a west coast travelling luxury cruiseliner is a must for serious Big Year birders, but always has a long waiting list. Guide Paul Lehman (fifth from right, behind the lady in green jacket) makes all the difference for seabirders (or any other sort of birders, when away from the sea) with supernatural abilities to locate and identify distant birds likely to be missed by mortals. 

One of the prized birds on the west coast 'luxury' birding cruise - a Murphy's Petrel. 

Finally! After six dedicated efforts to see a Flesh-footed Shearwater - arguably one of the most common of seabirds in Australia, a single all-black-plumaged 'Fleshie' (closer to camera) showed up with a group of resident Pink-footed Shearwaters off the Monterey California coast. 

Perseverance also led to an encounter with a mixed 'raft' of several hundred Black Storm-petrels and Least Storm-petrels at Thirty-mile Bank off San Diego.

Three amigos: jubilant Laura, Christian and I on Captain Dave Povey's speedy boat, shortly after connecting with hard-fought-for Least Storm-petrel - a species that had eluded all of us throughout a series of San Diego sea-trips. We'd chartered a bigger boat and enlisted the help of Debi Shearwater a week earlier for the Flesh-footed Shearwater near Monterey.

With the October 2016 announcement of the annexure of Hawaii to the ABA area, all but one of the four leading Big Year birders (Christian) made for the Aloha State hoping that in lieu of the finalization of an ABA checklist for the State, our species sightings could be registered on a provisional basis. See my earlier blog entry for details of my Hawaiian birding adventures.

Spectacular views from the Pihea Trail, Kauai, Hawaii 

And the nearby, but far less accessible Mohihi-Waiale Trail... 

                                      I'iwi - the quintessential surviving native Hawaiian bird species

Equalized and paralyzed
While I was thoroughly enjoying the birding on the Hawaiian islands during the first two weeks of December, my worry was that in my absence a rare bird that I ‘needed’ might show up on the mainland, and that I’d have to pull the pin and board the first available east-bound flight. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. What did happen though, was bad enough. Over the final six weeks or so of the year, my species-count lead fell away dramatically, partially through the cruelties of fate. Like pennies from heaven, birds of species that I’d gone the extra mile to score earlier in the year showed up to the delight of seemingly everyone else in US birding scene: a Brambling in Oregon, a Rustic Bunting in Washington, a Red-flanked Bluetail in Montana, and a La Sagra’s Flycatcher in Florida. All of these, along with a Code 4 Yellow Grosbeak - apparently encountered solely by Olaf some months prior to his reporting it, served to dramatically close the gap between our year-list totals. 

As none of these rare species were helpful to my cause, I had to settle for chasing down the last of the outstanding ‘common’ species that I still needed (Smith’s Longspur) in Oklahoma, and two coded, but decidedly unsexy birds - a stakeout Graylag Goose in Rhode Island, and a rehabilitated Red-footed Booby released off shore from San Diego on December 27th. My advice from ABA representatives was that both sightings presented valid entries. My best option after the Booby would appear to be to hunker down in a motel room - somewhere near a major airport, and to wait out the final three days of the year, hoping for a blip on one of the electronic rare bird alerts. Of course, any reported rarities helpful to me in this scenario would most likely also benefit the other guy, resulting in a zero-gain either way. But there was another possibility - one that involved betting against any relevant last minute rare bird arrivals on the mainland, in order to pursue a slim chance of advancement - at the edge of the world.

Swan song
One of John Puschock’s contacts on Adak Island, way out along the 1,200 mile long Aleutian chain, had advised him a few weeks earlier that he'd seen a white swan on one of the many accessible island lakes. Of the three possible species, the hope was for a Code 3 Whooper Swan– not a Trumpeter Swan or Tundra Swan (both Code 1 birds that were already on my year-list). There was cause for some optimism, as small groups of Whoopers had been known to occasionally overwinter on the island - most recently in 2013, contributing to Neil Hayward’s record tally. As I don’t do ‘sit tight and wait’ very well, I chose to throw caution to the wind (gale) one last time and travel to Adak with Robyn, who’d been with me since just before Christmas – her sixth visit of the year. We booked the Thursday 29th flight from Anchorage, one of the two weekly flights to Adak, and collectively crossed our fingers for agreeable flight conditions to the distant island.

Luckily, the early pessimistic weather forecast for Adak proved wrong, and the existing blustery, snowy conditions subsided on the day of the flight to reveal the relatively calm, bright and sunny weather that would prevail over the central Aleutian Islands for the next few days. Stepping onto the Adak airstrip late in the afternoon of that third-last day of the year, I was secretly optimistic of a fairytale finish to the year. 

Our clunker rental pickup truck was adequate, and we used the final hours of daylight to visit the nearest lakes to the airstrip. We were pleased to find that the retirement-aged vehicle's brakes 'sort-of' worked, that one of the two doors 'could' latch if forced hard enough, and that the engine would tolerate uphill climbs of up to fifteen minutes before overheating. The extensive road system was in comparatively great shape, belying the ever-contracting Adak population of less than 100 residents, down from a peak of 6,000 in 1993. The resident population has been in decline since the closure of the Naval and Coast Guard bases in the late 90's. Much of the remaining military infrastructure now stands in windowless ghost town settings. A stripped down McDonald’s Restaurant building lends a stark reminder of the impermanence of even the most solid symbols of these modern times.

Grandeur at the end of the world: Adak Island

Mt Reed overlooking some of the many Adak Island lakes potentially harboring swans

During the final two days of the year Robyn and I travelled from lake to lake across the accessible portions of Adak Island, periodically stopping at vantage points to wishfully scan for big white waterfowl. The views of snowclad mountains contrasted by the open Aleutian Sea were stunning, but with each fruitless stop along our three-hour circuit of lakes, my optimism for a Eureka! finish to the year waned - it looked as if the mystery swan had flown back to Russia, or god-knows-where. By late afternoon on New Year’s Eve - our third and final day of swan-searching, things weren’t looking good for the visiting team. A last drive down the west side of Clam Lagoon gave a tantalizing but too-brief look at a hovering kestrel before it disappeared behind the big roadside sand dune, quite possibly a Code 5 Eurasian Kestrel. It took too long for me to gather my wits and binoculars and reach the top of the dune, from where I couldn't relocate it (nor could it be found during an extensive search the next morning). By the time we resumed driving, the fast-setting sun threatened to end my epic year with the empty feeling of the missed kestrel. The only possibility for redemption remained tied to the hope of finding a tardy Whooper Swan. Onwards for a final scan of Palisades Lake: nothing. A final look across Haven Lake: nothing. One last venture up the western side of Lake Andrew, and… and… SWANS!!

End of part 3 of 4 - for Part 4, click older posts.