Photo By Kare Lohse

ATTU 1998: OFF THE CHARTS!

“By Macklin Smith”
You are riding your bicycle along a protected coastal cove, a 2,000-foot snow-covered mountain directly to the west, yet the west wind sweeps your face with some force. It's a nice sunny day, but it's raining. The huge, dark, resident Song Sparrows are singing on territory, and yes, that was a pair of Rock Ptarmigans just 50 feet from the road, and the lovely tinkling of arcing Lapland Longspur males now seems like background music. As you bike up toward the Coast Guard runway, a quick glance onto Savaloja Pond reveals the continued presence of the young Whooper Swan. Okay, so you're jaded already. Onward! You bike up the runway, the gusting west wind affecting your cycling from time to time, and you speed through Navy Town and around Massacre Valley, wind at your back. For the rest of the morning you will slog through snow and muddy roadbed toward Alexai Point, another four miles beyond the six miles of biking. You will take another look at the Oriental Greenfinch and the Gray Wagtail on your way out. It will be raining or not, but the ceiling will certainly lower, and the wind will pick up -- it's that kind of day. Welcome to Attu birding! You stop for lunch and it starts raining, but here's a pipit, so you try to keep eating your sandwich as you walk, or you just leave it on a rock while trying to figure out what pipit it is, in the increasing rain. Not easy, but eventually it is revealed to be a Red-throated Pipit, a life bird for most of the birders on this trek. You finish your drenched sandwiches, gather water from a convenient waterfall, and head out to the point, walking over rusted Marsden Matting from World War II and flushing the occasional Pacific Golden-Plover. Nothing of great note yet, but your group has become a platoon-of-the-day, a team, not just a bunch of individual fanatics. Having walked the mile out to the "T" of Alexai Point, you gaze at the whitecapped, gray-blue ocean, the kelp beds and rock islets. No Spectacled Eider yet. A thrush, an Eyebrowed Thrush! And then another, and, with a brief sweep of a small patch of beach grass, two more Eyebrowed Thrushes. Your group crosses over to check the marsh. Wood Sandpipers, quite a few, really; then suddenly a flock of six pipits, which you chase back to the main runway edge and begin to identify (not easy yet) as Olive-backed Pipits. Meanwhile you hear radio messages from Murder Point, twelve miles away. They are seeing up to twenty Olive-backed Pipits, many Yellow Wagtails, Bramblings, Sky Larks, and Rustic Buntings. Suddenly a Common Greenshank flies overhead and dips into a tiny marsh. Most in your group get scope looks. Two Hawfinches flush from near the pipit flock, the greenshank flies off into kingdom come, and then flock after flock of Wood Sandpipers, flocks of twenty to forty, are flying toward you and landing in the area, and smaller flocks of nominate Common Snipe, and who knows what else, scattered passerines, unidentified shorebirds. More Eyebrowed Thrushes. Rustic Buntings. Snipe on the rocks on the beach! Snipe on tidal kelp! Then a Mongolian Plover! And still flock after flock of Wood Sandpipers arriving. Rain, mist, and sun. More rain. The steady west wind. Birds falling from the sky. Exceptional season The Attu bird list, over the years, is impressive, with sixteen first North American records and with sightings of almost all of the birds commonly breeding on the Kamchatka Peninsula. But usually we have to work hard, with patience, to locate the good birds; rarely do we experience fallouts such as that of May 1998 -- fallouts which might seem just as mythical to Lower 48 birders as the birds dripping from the trees at High Island or Point Pelee. I can remember from a previous year a flock of seventeen Terek Sandpipers in combination with scores of tattlers of both species. I can remember several years when we had over 100 Bramblings or over 50 Rustic Buntings. But in other years we have had one or no Rustic Bunting, or just the occasional Brambling, or maybe even only one Wood Sandpiper or only one Long-toed Stint. Never until this year were there maximum daily counts on the order of 800 or more Wood Sandpipers, or 200 Long-toed Stints, or 30 Temminck's Stints, or 200 Olive-backed Pipits, or 7 Pechora Pipits, or 20 Hawfinches, or 180 Eyebrowed Thrushes, or 120 Rustic Buntings, or 250 Bramblings. Why? Weather on Attu is terribly evident experientially but often mysterious in the big picture. If winds are favorable (westerlies), we can expect to see some or many of the common Kamchatka breeders. If a storm or two originates over the Asian mainland and passes over the island, we may be rewarded with a megararity (Siberian Blue Robin, Oriental Pratincole). If both weather events occur, we may find fair numbers of "common rarities'' as well as a popper or two. If neither event occurs, we can better explore the history of the Battle of Attu, or enjoy the common breeding birds, or watch mammals, or botanize, or beachcomb. Mountains tower above the seastacks, and whales and sea lions and Sea Otters are easily visible. Attu is not a bad place to just loaf --but have your raingear in your pack and your CB radio handy. This spring, a storm passed over Attu on May 5, and this storm may have done at least three things: (1) brought with it Asian waterfowl migrants; (2) halted the east-to-west Aleutian waterfowl migration; and (3) carried with it our megararity of the year. Our advance party arrived with Whooper Swans flying here and there, numerous Smews and Common Pochards on the lakes, and flocks of Hawfinches, Bramblings, and Rustic Buntings. This storm then veered north into the Bering Sea, to be joined by another, the two storms forming a huge stationary low, bringing constant and often strong west winds to Attu -- winds which swept up migrants along the Asian coast and caught up a couple of inland migrants: Northern Wheatear and Great Knot (first Attu record). For days, then, it was not unusual to see several Eyebrowed Thrushes, a few Bramblings, and a Rustic Bunting or two in the same binocular field. We had copulating Wood Sandpipers. We had thirty Common Snipes in one small marsh. We had two Pin-tailed Snipes. We had numerous stints (Red-necked, Long-toed, Temminck's), Spotted Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Far Eastern Curlews, and a Green Sandpiper. One Dusky Thrush appeared, and then a few Siberian Rubythroats, and later a Red-flanked Bluetail. Hawfinches, traditionally almost impossible to see -- let alone see well -- seemed to be feeding almost everywhere. After two weeks of this, the stationary low dissipated, the winds shifted, and many of the migrants moved on. Birding slowed. Still, there were plenty of birds to chance upon. The most extraordinary of these was a Yellow- throated Bunting, discovered early in the third week -- a striking adult male, well seen by all participants, and even by a Coast Guard corpsman. Now, there are a few birds that we keep thinking we will find on Attu, but never do, such as Siberian Thrush and Yellow-browed Warbler: long-distance migrants that breed not so far away on the Asian mainland. But the Yellow- throated Bunting was a bird no one dreamed of seeing on Attu, as it is a short-distance migrant whose breeding range is not close at all. I suspect that this bird must have arrived with the original storm and been overlooked, but who knows? Teamwork The Yellow-throated Bunting event was typical of all great Attu chases. The species name is broadcast over the radio, along with the words "first North American record," and everyone on the island immediately goes ballistic. Most of these people --including me -- have no idea what a Yellow-throated Bunting even looks like! If we are sick with bronchitis, we get out of bed, grab our already-prepared pack, and head out the door and start walking over the tundra. If we are birding out on Alexai Point, our expressions turn grim, contemplating the twelve miles of anxious agony. If we are one of the discoverers, we sit back and relax with a thermos of tea, and perhaps gloat a bit, waiting for the others to arrive. Viewing such a bird requires great leadership and disciplined participants. Flank watches (usually the original discoverers) are nominated, and only a couple of people walk up the canyon to relocate the bird. Everyone else needs to remain calm and patient. When the bird is relocated, we need to walk deliberately, avoid excess noise, share scopes, stay civil, attempt only subdued celebratory gestures, and above all make sure not to flush the bird before everyone has seen it. The system works. The Yellow-throated Bunting was but the highlight of the best migration of Asiatic species (over 40, with unprecedented numbers of individuals) we have witnessed on Attu in over twenty years. Future Attu visitors should not expect a repeat of 1998, but can plan on seeing some Asiatic species, perhaps in good numbers, and perhaps even a megararity or two. Participants can also count on good food, hot and cold running water, a bicycle (of uncertain age and quality, but certainly functional), and expert leadership. Along with all this, there will be rain, snow, fog, blowing mist, occasional sunshine, and (hopefully) storms. There will be spectacular landscapes and seascapes, pure air and water, and plenty of healthy exercise -- but don't overdo it! (There may be a plague-bearer along, and getting sweaty and then chilled can help bring on illness.) Attu birding takes some patience and a great deal of endurance. Everyone suffers a disappointment or two, usually in the form of a missed lifer. For most participants, however, Attu is an experience rich in accomplishment and triumph. It is, as we used to say, a real trip.
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Updated: 12/05/2016  08:50