That's what our participants were calling our 1998 trip well before it was over. Why? First, because we saw more Asian vagrants and migrants than on any of our previous 21 spring trips. (There were very few birders on Attu before us.) But mostly they called it the trip of the century because we saw those species in numbers well beyond what--in our wildest moments--we had ever dreamed were possible. We sent a group to Attu on May 10. They stayed two weeks, and experienced an extraordinary fallout of migratory birds, the kind one associates with lucky years at Point Pelee or the Gulf Coast of Texas. Then our second two-week group came on May 25, after having birded a day on the Pribilofs while waiting for our Attu weather to clear. Fortunately, many of our fallout birds were still on Attu when they arrived. While they did not see the numbers of individuals the first group did, they continued to add new species to our list. By the end of their stay, they had recorded 35 Asian species, compared to the earlier group's 36. Among them was the first North American record of Yellow-throated Bunting, a handsome male with its yellow throat and black tuft. (See our web site at www.attu.com for photos of the species.) Our two trips recorded 41 Asian species all together, with over 11,000 individual sightings of Asian species! Some of the birders in each of our groups went to Gambell after Attu. Unfortunately, the conditions that produced unbelievable birding on Attu were not present there, and some of them even left Gambell early. Never was the contrast between the two birding outposts of Alaska more pronounced.
More details Most of our staff went five days early to Attu, to prepare quarters and install two new diesel generators. We knew that Attu had been buffeted by storms, thanks to the biggest El Nino ever, but we were shocked to find that it was colder than ever before. The temperature dropped to about 28 each night, 4 or 5 degrees below normal, and it snowed almost every night. At least our occasional daytime snow showers didn't add much to the ground cover. Worst was that we found part of our dining hall roof had blown off not long before we arrived. This was a serious problem that we couldn't repair until our first group's plane brought us additional building material. The staff's duties couldn't keep some of them from going over the hill behind camp the first night to check Big Lake. "It looks like Hokkaido over there" reported Steve Heinl on his return to base. Whooper Swans, Smews, Pochards, Tufted Ducks, and Eurasian Wigeons were present in greater numbers than we had ever seen on that lake. Our first group spent a few days ticking off these waterfowl, other expected species (Emperor Goose, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Red-faced Cormorant, etc.) and a few migrants. Hawfinch, Long-toed Stint, Rustic Bunting, and Brambling were among them. We rediscovered our adult male Spectacled Eider, present since 1993. On the 14th, we were excited to find both Dusky Thrush and Oriental Greenfinch. We were happily checking off Asian species one by one. Strong 70-knot north winds the night of the 13th shifted gradually to the southwest, becoming a brisk 20 knots on the 15th. On the 16th, Saturday, it was apparent that birds were arriving in numbers. We saw 19 Eyebrowed Thrushes, topping our old one-day record of 12, and we were quite astounded by our total of 465 Wood Sandpipers. These records did not last long, however--the floodgates were just beginning to open. In the next few days, we would record such totally unprecedented single-day counts as these: 35 Black-tailed Godwits, 700 Wood Sandpipers, 110 Long-toed Stints, 180 Eyebrowed Thrushes, 225 Olive-backed Pipits (they stayed on to breed), 193 Rustic Buntings, 366 Bramblings, 18 Hawfinches. This was a new experience; we usually work hard to find migrants on Attu. But now they were everywhere. We would ride down the coast road and see thrushes and pipits and buntings and sandpipers scattering in front of us as if being plowed off the road. Suddenly the problem wasn't finding birds, it was worrying that a few really extraordinary accidentals were getting lost in the crowd. Not to worry--we found many, such as Great Knot, Pin-tailed Snipes, Green Sandpiper, and Pechora Pipits. Here's the full list, for both trips, of our Asian species.
Perhaps our only disappointment was that some of the later migrants, such as cuckoos and flycatchers, did not appear before we left.Our future schedule then, remains as follows [Note: trips are no longer available]:
Three-week trips have been our usual offering, allowing you to maximize the number of birds you see. 1999 will be our last spring three-week trip. For those who wish to spend less time (and money), we have occasionally offered a two-week schedule, as we will again in our final year, 2000. Our trips offer not just a good opportunity to see those species in the North Ameria field guides that you cannot expect to see elsewhere in our area--they also transport you to a part of the country that is very difficult to see in other ways. Attu is the last island in the Aleutians, the most remote and rarely-visited accessible area of the United States. Over 2000 Japanese soldiers died on Attu in a bloody battle when we recaptured it from their occupation force in World War II; signs of the war are still evident. Now Attu is part of the Aleutian Islands Unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and the eastern third, where we bird, is a National Monument. The Coast Guard operates a LORAN navigation station, and maintains an FAA-certified 6600-foot airstrip that allows us to visit. There are no facilities for visitors except those two abandoned buildings we have rehabilitated and maintain. Each trip entails a major logistical effort to supply the tons of food, fuel, and other supplies that our visits require. Obviously, a trip to Attu is rewarding for birders. Attu is widely recognized as the ne plus ultra (both literally and figuratively!) of North American birding. More first and second records of birds on the ABA Checklist have been made from Attu than from any other birding location. No other birding trip in North America is like it, nor have any others been written about so frequently, or praised as highly. A trip to Attu is rewarding to anyone with a sense of adventure, an appetite for unique and interesting experiences, or an appreciation of remote, wild, and beautiful places. Our trips have been taken by beginning birders, and even non-birders, some of whom have become repeat visitors. If you visit Attu, you will know why it is such a special place that some of our participants return again and again, even when the chances of seeing new birds are small. We will be happy to provide you full information on our trips--birds, facilities, staff, etc. If you would like further details, please call our toll-free number or write us. Much of this information can also be found on our web site, along with more details of our 1998 trip that we sent periodically, direct from Attu. You can reach us as follows: