On May 18th, 2010 a group of intrepid birder's left Adak Island on the ship - Puk-Uk headed for Attu the final island in the Aleutian chain and a legendary location for North American birder's. We had been delayed a couple of days due to a storm and the birding at Adak had been dull with the exception of a female Smew. This trip was masterminded by John Puschock from Zugunruhe Bird Tours and was very highly anticipated by all.
Attu adventurers led by John Puschock (centre with camera)outside the infamous and aptly named ASBAG (Adak Sports Bar and Grill)
Rich MacIntosh (veteran Alaskan birder and old salt) trying on survival suit with Susan Clarke looking on
We initially headed east to run Little Tanaga Strait summer foraging grounds for many thousands of alcids most notably Whiskered Auklets. Soon we were in the midst of flocks of mixed Auklets with Whiskered far outnumbering the Parakeet, Crested & Leasts which were also present in good numbers. Flocks of a dozen to hundreds of auklets buzzed around and the birds could be heard calling all arounds us. By the time we cleared the strait we had seen 1000s of Whiskered Auklets the most elusive of all North American alcids. We headed west quite satisfied. A colony of the critically endangered Steller’s Sea Lions can be seen on a small islet at the north entrance to the strait.
Whiskered Auklets, Little Tanaga Strait. Aleutian Islands
Steller’s Sea Lion colony, Little Tanaga Strait, Aleutians
As we headed west along the south side of Kagalaska Island the numbers of Northern Fulmars began steadily increasing and we began seeing good numbers of Laysan’s Albatross. Dinner was called and people started to move inside for our first meal aboard the Puk-Uk. I lingered outside and was alone when a large albatross with a white back and a bright pink bill wheeled by the back of the boat about 2y yards astern. After a microsecond of disbelief I screamed out Short-tailed Albatross!!!!!! This rallied the troops very quickly but the bird was only semi-cooperative allowing the group only some distant identifiable views -such is pelagic birding.
Laysan Albatross- abundant spring-summer visitor to the Aleutians Laysan Albatross-master of dynamic soaring On the second day of the voyage we journeyed westward enjoying a nice selection of alcids, numbers of Laysan Albatosses and large numbers of Northern Fulmars. Most of the Northern Fulmars in the Aleutians are dark morphs with only the rare light morph bird. We arrived at Sirius Point at Kiska in the late afternoon to witness the spectacle of literally millions of alcids returning to roost. In the largest numbers were Crested Auklets. There unique “citrus” smell can be noticed on approaching the point. No words can adequately describe the spectacle of thousands and thousads auklets in the air , on the sea and covering every part of the rocky cliff faces. A couple of dark Aleutian Pergerines looked on clearly already satiated on an Auklet dinner.
Clouds of millions of Auklets at Sirius Point, Kiska- John Puschock- Z-Birds
Northern Fulmar-dark morph-abundant breeding seabird in the Aleutians
Travelling through the Aleutians is a wonderful experience-no people, no other boats just millions of seabirds and remote mountainous islands. The partial cloud cover which is always moving results in an eerie light which compliments the dramatic landscapes. Being the northern rim of the Ring of Fire the Aleutians are basically a long line of volcanoes many of which are still active including Mt. Redoubt which has interfered with Alaskan air traffic on several occasions of late and may one day be big news.
Typical Aleutian Island with giant blown out caldera of old vocano
The next day we had several short and brief sightings of Mottled Petrels. many Laysan Albatrosses, thousands of Northen Fulmars , a few Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Short-tailed Shearwaters and a large assortment of Alcids. Several close observations of Red-legged Kittiwake and a single Slaty- backed Gull were new for the trip list. Red-legged Kittiwake is endemic breeder to the Aleutian, Commander and Pribilof Islands and is undoubtedly one of the worlds most localized and remote Laridae.In the late afternoon we arrived at the mythical island known to ABA birder’s as Attu.
First Summer and Adult Black-legged Kittiwake - Aleutian Islands, Alaska Adult Red-legged Kittiwake, St. Paul, Pribiloff Islands, Alaska Adult and First Summer Red-legged Kittiwake on breeding cliffs -St. Paul, Pribillof Islands, Alaska
Attu is legendary and mythical location for North American birders with more mega rarities records then any other single spot on the continent. Part of the allure is the near impossible access for most birders since the demise of Attours in 2001. Our visit was accompanied by adverse and persistent north winds as well as “collectors” from the University of Alaska who roam around the island blasting away with shotguns at both Siberian vagrants, breeding birds and migrants like some dinosaurs from another era. Despite this we saw a reasonable selection of asian vagrants including the first ”accepted” (a previous record exists from St. Paul, found by Gavin Berber & Scott Schuette but not officially accepted by the Alaska BRC) North American record of Solitary Snipe. Hawfinch, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat , Rustic Bunting, Long-toed Stint and Brambling were among the other Asian vagrants present. The Pu Uk, Massacre Bay, Attu Attu legendary North American Birding Location
Ancient Shipwreck- Alexai Point, Attu Former lodgings for Attours familiar to many veteran ABA birders Graffitti in Attours “lodge” documenting Attu’s past glory After a hard week of birding on Attu we basked in the knowledge that we were among the very very few birders that had ever seen a Solitary Snipe in the ABA area and that our find would add this species to the North American list. On the evening of May 27th we steamed out of Massacre Bay for what would be an exciting trip back to Adak and then Dutch Harbour. The first part of the excitement was I forgot to put on my scopolamine patch. This combined with very rough seas resulted in a brutal case of seasickness requiring consciousness exterminating doses of scopolamine leaving me mostly comatose until the next afternoon. We ended the day at Kiska and marvelled at remains of the Japanese fleet deystroyed in the harbour at the end of their occupation during WW2.
After a day of rest expectations were high for some exciting seabird action. Lots of birds were being seen Laysan Albatross, Fork-tailed Storm-petrels and the usual array of alcids. Suddenly a Mottled Petrel came rocketing down the port side of the boat with out even slowing down. A while later we noted a pod of Orca ahead with a large number of Albatross and other seabirds. As we approached the mob an adult Short-tailed Albatross appeared on the port side and glided ahead of us landing on the water. As we approached it took flight and was lost to view. The boat was stopped and John Puschock started chumming like mad. Many Laysan and a single Black-footed Albatross gathered behind the boat. Then Rich MacIntosh spotted the Short-tailed Albatross coming up the wake. Spectacular views were had as the bird landed behind the boat allowing for one to have all three Northern Pacific Albatrosses in a single binocular field.
Adult Short-tailed Albatross, Amchitka Pass, Aleutians- May 29/10
The next day we safely arrived at Adak and let off several birders and took on board a couple more for the trip to the port of Dutch Harbor made famous in the television series “The Deadliest Catch”. We traversed Little Tanaga Starit in the mid afternoon seeing 5 species of Auklets with large numbers of Whiskered Auklets. The next day May 31 would see us travel from Amlia Island to Amukta Pass. It would prove to be an eventful day. Early in the morning Rich had an adult Short-tailed Albatross fly by. As we approached Seguam Pass we encountered a tidal rip and the numbers of birds was astounding. There was virtually always 10-20 Laysan Albatrosses winging by the boat at any one time. Large groups of 1000s of Northern Fulmars along with Black-footed Albatrosses, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-petrels and a good selection of alcids. Then came the Short-tailed Albatross show over the next couple of hours we saw at least 7 and probably more like 10 of these rare birds in virtually all plumages from a great milk chocolate brown juvenile to a near adult. The event was one highlights of my twenty plus years of birding.
On the final day of the tour we travelled from Four Mountains to Dutch Harbor. The most exciting event of the day was intercepting a river of thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters streaming north into the Bering Sea. The number of birds was staggering with hundreds of birds a minute flowing buy for what seemed like hours, The birds were travelling in fairly compact formation in what looks like a living river without end. A few Red-legged Kittiwakes and scattered small flocks of Whiskered Auklets appeared as we closed in on Dutch Harbor. Aleutian Map showing key Islands and area occupied by Japan during WW2-our journey started in Adak travelling westward to Attu then returning to Dutch Harbor a trip of close to 1800 miles
Attu birders and crew of the Puk Uk We had a few hours to look around Dutch Harbor with Rich MacIntosh as our guide. “Dutch” can at times be productive for Eurasian vagrants but today we were limited to the common Alaskan breeding birds. Shortly thereafter I boarded the plane to Anchorage for the long journey back to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.
In retrospect this was an absolutely amazing trip. The chance to study and photograph 1000s of Laysan Albatross at close range was phenomenal not to mention Black-footed Albatross in smaller numbers and the very rare opportunity to see all age classes of the critically endangered Short-tailed Albatross. This along with Aleutian specialties such as Red-legged Kittiwake, Red-faced Cormorant and the amazingly cool Whiskered Auklet (plus 13 other species of alcids), a first accepted North American record and a assortment of other rare Eurasian vagrants made this a trip of a lifetime. A boat tour of the Aleutians is a must for every serious seabirder and exploring the Aleutians is a fantastic experience for anyone interested in wild and remote places.