Attu 2013 – Trip #1: May 19-26

May 30th, 2013

We’ve just returned from Zugunruhe Birding Tours’ first trip of 2013 to Attu. Normally, we do this as a two-week trip, but this one was only one-week long with only two days at Attu. It was so short because we were joining a Japanese television crew’s charter to the island. They were working on a show about the Battle of Attu — this year marks the 70th anniversary of the fighting ­ and they shared their unused space onboard the boat.

We departed Adak in the early evening of May 19. While there were birds around us immediately, mostly alcids, Northern Fulmars, and Laysan Albatrosses, we had to wait for the next morning to get one of our big targets: Short-tailed Albatross. An adult came up from behind on the starboard side. We slowed and it landed on the water. It wasn’t interested in chum, but it sat on the water for several minutes, giving great views.
Short-tailed Albatross
Short-tailed Albatross
Continuing westward, there was another sighting of an adult Short-tailed Albatross about an hour later. It’s hard to say if it was a different bird or not.
The next bit of excitement came late on the same day. Mottled Petrels started to fly from north to south in front of us. They were extremely fast. It was hard to get a good look at them, and there was no hope of a photograph. One would appear every 15 minutes or so, and that continued until we had counted at least nine. There was a break in the action a few hours before dark, but the show continued the next morning. Just east of Buldir, another six or so petrels flew in front of us just like the previous night. Again, they were too fast for photos.
We arrived at Attu on May 22. We had a late start and only birded around Casco Cove, the runways, and the Peaceful River. The only Asian birds of note were six Tufted Ducks and one male Eurasian Wigeon.
On May 23, we birded longer and had more to show for it. At sunrise, there was a Slaty-backed Gull with a group of Glaucous-winged Gulls on Casco Cove. The gulls drifted off before most of the group got a look at the Slaty-backed, but the gull was kind enough to make another showing less than two hours later at the south end of the north-south runway. This time it stuck around long enough for everyone to get scope views of it.
Our next stop was Smew Pond and Henderson Marsh. There was nothing on the pond, so we continued on and birded the hillside on the north side of the valley here. A Brambling made an appearance, giving scope views. Meanwhile, my co-leader, Jess Findlay had been walking around the marsh. He had heard a call note that he didn’t recognize but he couldn’t find what was making it. Most of the group followed him back to where he had heard it, and we quickly flushed a Wood Sandpiper. We got a scope on it, but we momentarily forgot about it when I spotted a small duck flying up the valley ­ it was a female Smew. Talk about luck.
Departure time came way too fast, and by 6:45 PM we were headed back to Adak. As we passed by the east end of Attu, we were greeted by a large pod of Killer Whales. There were also several flocks of gulls on the water. They were mostly Glaucous-wingeds, but two Slaty-backeds and a probably Vega Herring Gull were mixed in.
On the afternoon of May 24, we were almost at Kiska when a subadult Short-tailed Albatross flew up our wake. We slowed and began chumming. Like before, the Short-tailed wouldn’t join the Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, but it did sit nearby, allowing us to soak it in. We were also able to soak in a second-year Red-legged Kittiwake. When we started chumming, this gull flew right up to the stern of the boat. At times, it was less than ten feet from us. We had seen about 10 adult Red-leggeds previously, but they were all quick fly-bys. This was the best look at one for the entire trip.
Short-tailed Albatross (subadult)
Short-tailed Albatross (subadult)
May 25 was our last full day at sea. While crossing Amchitka Pass, we saw another dozen Mottled Petrels. Again, they went by too quickly to get a photograph. We made it to the south side of Gareloi Island in the afternoon. Here we found two Black-headed Gulls.
As the sun rose on the final day of the tour, May 26, we approached Little Tanaga Strait, one of the best places on earth to see Whiskered Auklets, and today was no exception. The auklets were scattered about the strait in groups. The largest one had several thousand individuals. We spent over an hour studying and photographing these guys before heading back to the dock at Adak. We’ll pick up a new group and head back to Attu on a two-week trip.
Whiskered Auklet

Whiskered Auklet

May 30: Arrival at Dutch Harbor

May 31st, 2012

After all the excitement of the past few days, today was very quiet. It was our least birdy day of the entire trip. There were a few Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses scattered about, along with some Short-tailed Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, and assorted alcids, but numbers were much lower than previous days.

We came within 3 miles of Bogoslof Island, home to a small colony of Red-legged Kittiwakes, but only the photographers camped out on the stern of the boat saw a few. The only kittiwakes the rest of us saw were Black-leggeds. The only thing new for the trip was a Northern Fur Seal sticking its head out of the water about 10 miles west of Dutch Harbor.

We arrived in Dutch Harbor around 8 PM, concluding the journey. I’ll compile the species list for the trip after I return home tomorrow. Thanks for following the adventure.

May 28 and 29: Short-tailed Bonanza

May 30th, 2012

After leaving Little Tanaga Pass on the 27th, we sailed eastward on the north side of Atka Island. Around 7 AM the next morning, the seas got rougher because the wind shifted from the southeast to the east. We were no longer in the lee of Atka. Much of the day was spent heading eastward, first off of Atka and then Amlia Island. We were continually searching for Short-tailed Albatrosses, but no luck with that.

Late in the afternoon, we got into Seguam Pass, one of the hotspots for Short-taileds. At first we were surrounded by Northern Fulmars and Laysan Albatrosses as we had been all day, but then as we traveled further south, alcids started to appear and then large groups of feeding birds (still mostly Northern Fulmars and Laysan Albatrosses, but Short-tailed Shearwaters became more common). The tide was running from the Bering Sea side to the Pacific side, and we had finally arrived on the “right” side where there were upwellings bringing food to the surface.

Not too long after getting to this spot, I spotted an immature Short-tailed Albatross ahead of us. I called it out and jumped out of the wheelhouse to tell the people on the stern. Some of the birders in the house saw it but some missed it, and we never saw it from the stern. I went back into the wheelhouse and pretty soon spotted another Short-tailed. This one was an older subadult. Before leaving the wheelhouse, I made sure everyone in there saw it and then back to the stern and started chumming. As I threw out the first piece of chum, I looked up and two orca surfaced, appearing to be headed right for us. That was the last I noticed them because soon the Short-tailed began making passes behind the boat.

The chum kept it around the boat for about 10 minutes, but it never landed. Apparently there was more than one following the boat — one of the birders looked at his photos later and noticed that there was a near-adult Short-tailed in the background of one of the photos. Somehow we all missed that one. There was some talk that maybe there was a second sub-adult around the boat at the same time, too. I haven’t looked at all the photos, so I can’t say for sure if there was more than one.

After we left that bird, I returned to the wheelhouse, and almost immediately an adult Short-tailed Albatross made a quick pass in front of us, disappearing off our port side.

By now the winds were really picking up and wave height was about 10 feet. We made a beeline across the pass to make it to Seguam Island before the tide shifted and went against the wind. By the time we got to the east side of the pass, the wind was a steady 35 knots with some gusts going over 55. We anchored on the south side of Seguam Island, but it wasn’t entirely comfortable. The wind was still howling and there was a large swell coming from the south.

We stayed on anchor until 10:30 AM the next morning (May 29). The winds had died and sailing was much more comfortable today. The crossing of Amukta Pass was unventful. We stopped by Chagulak Island on the east side of the pass. The island was surrounded by swarms of Northern Fulmars. I don’t know how many nest on this island, but I’d guess at least several hundred thousand.

Our next destination was Herbert Island to pick up some kayakers. About an hour from reaching the island, an immature Short-tailed Albatross was spotted. Again I ran to the stern to start chumming. The albatross landed on the water but did not approach the boat. We lost sight of it, so we turned around and soon found it again. It was interested in the chum but rarely took any. The Laysans were not as shy. A few Black-footeds came in as well. At one point, all three species tried grabbing the same piece of fish.

I kept chumming and a sub-adult flew in and landed near the stern. This bird didn’t get as close to the boat, but both birds stuck around. Then Nicole, the cook, spotted a third Short-tailed. Pretty impressive because she didn’t even have binoculars and this one was pretty far back. It was another young immature. We stayed with these birds for over 30 minutes. A fourth Short-tailed, another immature, made a pass far behind our stern but didn’t stick around.

Immature and sub-adult Short-tailed Albatrosses west of Herbert Island. These two touched bills a few times, and then the Black-footeds in the background did the same. (photo by Monte Taylor)

Immature and sub-adult Short-tailed Albatrosses west of Herbert Island. These two touched bills a few times, and then the Black-footeds in the background did the same. (photo by Monte Taylor)

Sub-adult Short-tailed Albatross west of Herbert Island (photo by Monte Taylor)

Sub-adult Short-tailed Albatross west of Herbert Island (photo by Monte Taylor)

Once everyone filled up their camera’s memory cards, we started off for Herbert Island. Along the way, a few more Short-taileds flew by the boat. We didn’t stop for these.

We should be in Dutch Harbor tomorrow night (May 30), which will be the end of the journey.

May 26 and 27: Arrival at Adak and on to Dutch Harbor

May 28th, 2012

I didn’t write yesterday (May 26) because we hit rough seas around noon and it got worse until midnight when we finally got in the lee of Tanaga Island. We saw many of the usual seabirds but nothing unexpected.

We pulled into Sweeper Cove at Adak at 10 AM this morning. We got word that one of the Hawfinches found a few days ago was still around and within walking distance of the boat. We all headed over there and found it immediately. A little later, we drove around Clam Lagoon. Somehow we missed Aleutian Tern at Attu. It seems they weren’t back yet, but they were back at Adak. There were many flying around the lagoon and resting on the flats. Some Arctic Terns were mixed in. The highlights for Issac and me were two Snow Geese. Very rare for Adak, they were a new island bird for both of us. A Brant was also an island bird for me.

We dropped off all but one Attu participant at the Adak airport and took on 7 new people for the trip to Dutch Harbor. Departing around 6 PM, we motored over to Little Tanaga Pass for the Whiskered Auklet show. We saw thousands. We also had a Laysan Albatross circle the boat once while we were in the pass. They’re very common on the open ocean, but I see them only occasionally in narrow passes like Little Tanaga.

We’re now faced with a very not-so-good weather forecast. Right now, there are strong southeast winds, but they’re forecasted to switch to the north. We’d like to stay on the lee side of the islands, but the switching winds makes that difficult to accomplish. We may find a place to anchor and just wait for the shift. This will make us late arriving in Dutch Harbor. No one is terribly happy about that, but it’s better than dealing with rough weather.

At sea May 25: Buldir to Kiska

May 26th, 2012

Today was mostly a day of rest. I think everyone took midday naps. We saw most of the usual seabirds. The highlight was another immature Short-tailed Albatross west of Kiska. We also saw another immature Short-tailed Albatross last night soon after I completed yesterday’s blog post. This one was just east of Ingestrem Rocks.

We circumnavigated Kiska in the afternoon so we would get to Sirius Point at sunset. Along the way, we cruised by Kiska Harbor. You can still see some of the remnants of the Japanese occupation of the island, such as a small submarine and anti-aircraft guns.

Sirius Point is home to a huge Crested and Least auklet colony. At sunset, over a million birds gather on the sea and fly in to the colony. Besides being an impressive sight, you can also smell the Crested Auklets. They have a citrus odor.

And as promised, here’s Doug Hitchcox’s killer Smew photo.

Smew at Alexei Point (photo by Doug Hitchcox)

Smew at Alexei Point (photo by Doug Hitchcox)

Attu May 24: Gilbert Ridge and Alexei Point

May 25th, 2012

First up today was a walk along Gilbert Ridge from Massacre Beach to Alexei Point. Nothing to report from there. Things picked up a little when we got to Alexei Point. Isaac found another female Smew in a pond near the base of the point. This one wasn’t as flighty and gave everyone good looks. (Check back tomorrow for a photo.)

On our walk around the outer part of the point, we flushed a Lesser Sand-Plover (Mongolian Plover). It decided to fly a long way away. Frustrating because two of us had just scanned that part of the beach. It was hiding behind a rock. Luckily, most of us had a good look as it took off. The red on the breast was very obvious. A little further on, we found three Pacific Golden-Plover and a Bar-tailed Godwit. These were almost certainly the same birds we saw at this spot about a week ago.

That was the last of our birding at Attu. We boarded the Puk-uk and were underway by 4 PM. On the way out, we passed a single Whiskered Auklet. As I write this, we are passing Ingenstrem Rocks heading east.

Attu May 23: You can run, but (some of) you can’t hide

May 24th, 2012

The day started with a low ceiling, and later in the morning, it was down on the deck. The weather on the day we found the Oriental Greenfinch was similar, though the ceiling was even lower today. Even though it wasn’t raining, we were still getting a little wet from the fog. Our optics were fogging, too.

This was our last day around the Casco Cove area, so we split up to cover as many areas as possible. A few people found the Smew from yesterday back in the Runway Ponds, and this time, it stuck around long enough for everyone to see. However, I’m beginning to think I have bad Smew juju. As I approached on my bike, I saw everyone looking at the pond. Then as I got closer, I noticed they were all panning to the right — the Smew was in flight. I caught a glimpse of it as it flew off. I was told several Green-winged Teal were bothering it, but I’m beginning to get a complex that Smew are repulsed by me.

Isaac was away from the rest of us and refound the male Pine Grosbeak that was found early in the trip. It was near the intersection of the runways, just a little to the west of where we originally saw it.

We split up again. After about half an hour, there was a call on the radio that a bird was flushed from under the runway bridge over the Peaceful River. The person who found it didn’t know what it was. The problem was that he saw it land behind some vegetation, but he had to leave to be able to establish radio contact with the rest of us. We all arrived pretty quickly and walked the river, but it had disappeared. Frustrating. It could’ve been a really good one. He reported that it was a somewhat large bird with white secondaries. (No, it was not an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.)

Again, we split up. Two people scared up a Common Greenshank on Barbara Point, but it took off. There was also a fly-over Eastern Yellow Wagtail seen by a few near Kingfisher Creek. So birds are arriving. However, the skies cleared this afternoon, and it was actually quiet warm (possibly in the upper 50s). Winds are light and blowing out of the east. Tomorrow we walk Gilbert Ridge and Alexei Point. We’ll see if there’s anything still sticking around.

Attu May 22: What Smew? (Not much)

May 23rd, 2012

Only one new bird today. While walking around the Runway Ponds, I scared up a female Smew. It circled around the ponds a little before flying off to the north. Isaac was able to spot it from Casco Cove before it was gone (temporarily). Two members of the group got to the ponds before the rest of the group, and they refound it in the easternmost pond. They looked away to set up a scope, and when they looked up, it was gone. Those Smew are sneaky.

A few other birds remain today: a Long-toed Stint remains at the north end of Casco Cove, and I found another Brambling near the Henderson River mouth.

Attu May 21: A few birds remain

May 22nd, 2012

Short post today…We focused on Henderson Marsh and West Massacre Valley for most of today but didn’t turn up much. The most interesting birds to me were a pair of curious female Red-breasted Mergansers at Lake Elwood that swam up to within 50 feet of me to check out what I was doing. They also followed Isaac when he walked around the lake. Later, we split up, with some of us going to East Massacre Valley and the beginning of Gilbert Ridge, others to Barbara Point, and some to Casco Cove and Kingfisher Creek. We didn’t find anything new, but some of the birds found previously were still around: Bar-tailed Godwit at Barbara Point, Long-toed Stint at Casco Cove, and Snowy Owl, Brambling, and Hoary Redpoll near Kingfisher Creek.

Attu May 20: Return to Casco Cove

May 21st, 2012

After birding at Stalemate Bank until after 11 PM yesterday, we ran all night and dropped anchor in Casco Cove around 11 AM. After lunch on the boat, we started birding the canyons and hillsides on the west side of  Casco Cove at noon. There wasn’t much going on there. There also wasn’t much on the west end of the E-W runway except for a small group of Hoary Redpolls.

We split up into two groups at this point. My group walked the shore around Casco Point while Isaac’s group explored the runway ponds and the Peaceful River. My group found three Eurasian Wigeons and two Long-toed Stints pretty quickly. Then a little further on, Doug Hitchcox said “Plover”. When I heard that, I was expecting to see a Lesser Sand-Plover, but it was actually a Semipalmated. Semipalmated is much rarer than Lesser Sand-Plover here at Attu, but it’s a bit difficult to get excited about it. I’m sure you understand. Meanwhile, Isaac’s group found a Long-toed Stint at the runway ponds and a Bar-tailed Godwit at the mouth of the Peaceful River.

Long-toed Stint (photo by Doug Hitchcox)

Long-toed Stint (photo by Doug Hitchcox)

Semipalmated Plover (photo by Doug Hitchcox)

Semipalmated Plover (photo by Doug Hitchcox)

After dinner, we watched The Big Year. It was interesting to watch the Attu scenes while at Attu.

We have four more days left on the island. We’ve had no storms up to this point, and none are forecasted for the remainder of our stay, so we’re going to have to put in some extra work.