Another Attu Mega (and Mottled Petrels, and Whiskered Auklets, and...)

The previous few days had a trickle of new birds but no major fallouts, and without any obvious major changes in the weather, we weren’t expecting another one anytime soon. Good birds – great birds – can show up at anytime. For example, we had a Solitary Snipe drop in right in front of us on an otherwise uneventful day in 2010, furnishing the first accepted record for North America. So the lack of a storm to blow in numbers of vagrants just meant we had to cover more territory to improve the odds.

After going over the checklist the previous night, I told everyone that the leaders would go to separate areas the next day [June 4], and they could choose where they wanted to go. I say “where they wanted to go” rather than “who they wanted to go with” because everyone decided to hike Gilbert Ridge with Jess. I was on my own, and Isaac too. I decided to not take it personally since it’s one of the best spots on the island for vagrants and a nice hike. But it was a few days since my last shower…

Anyway, I checked out Big Lake, Casco Point, the runway ponds, and a few other spots around the runways with only a male Eurasian Wigeon near the mouth of the Peaceful River and a heard-only Rock Ptarmigan on the slopes of Weston Mountain to show for it. On the other hand, the tour participants chose wisely. On the radio, I heard they found a Black-headed Gull on Massacre Beach. Then a few hours later, I heard some more chatter. This time it was a Common Sandpiper on the rocks near the base of Alexei Point. I was encouraged to continue searching for shorebirds myself, so I rode around to the docks in front of the now abandoned US Coast Guard base and hiked the shoreline south to Barbara Point. Still nothing for me.

Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants nest on the remains of docks in Massacre Bay. This Pelagic Cormorant flies south from the docks towards Barbara Point.

Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants nest on the remains of docks in Massacre Bay. This Pelagic Cormorant flies south from the docks towards Barbara Point.

After returning to the boat, I got a rundown on what all was seen. In addition to what I already mentioned, the group also saw the 2 Smews on a pond at the base of Alexei Point and a Siberian Rubythroat in the same general area. The Arctic Loon from a few days earlier was still on Massacre Bay. Isaac reported that the three Bar-tailed Godwits were still at Navy Cove and that he found another nesting pair of Snowy Owls and FIVE singing male Siberian Rubythroats along the Peaceful River. It’s been proposed that this species may actually breed on Attu, but since birders have rarely (if ever) stayed later than the first week of June, no one is sure. It certainly would have been interesting to stay longer to see if these birds stuck around.

However, the best of the bird of the day was seen by no one. I mean it wasn’t seen by any of us birders. After dinner, I heard from the other guides that Billy, the captain of the Puk-uk, had a bird flying around him as he walked up Hogback Ridge on his morning constitutional that he described as behaving like a swallow but larger and dark. It sounded very much like a swift, and we figured it was probably a Fork-tailed based on probabilities.

You can guess where we were going the next morning [June 5]: Hogback Ridge. Swifts have been known to stick around the same area for a day or two in the Aleutians, so we had some hope of refinding Billy’s bird. As usually happens, we were distracted before we could get to our intended destination. This time we were distracted before we even went anywhere. The day was very clear, and all the peaks were visible. Isaac spotted a Rock Ptarmigan chasing another one in flight high up on Weston Mountain as we were getting our bikes. We eventually got scopes on one of them as it sat on a rock, surveying its kingdom. There are several subspecies of Rock Ptarmigan endemic to the Aleutian Islands, so it’s always good to get the Ptarmigan here, in case there’s a split down the road.

From here, most everyone headed up to the airport and then Hogback Ridge. Jess decided to hike up Weston Mountain to do some photography, both scenic and Ptarmigan. Long story short: No luck with on Hogback. Isaac and Jay decided to head up to the Japanese memorial while the rest of us went back down to Henderson Marsh. There wasn’t much going on anywhere. It was just a warm, lazy day to enjoy.

Eventually, everyone made it back to Casco Cove. Most everyone was at the pick-up spot near Lower Base while a few of us were still straggling in. I was the last one and crossing Kingfisher Creek when Jess came over the radio to report a swift just flew by him about two-thirds up Weston Mountain. I looked up and saw where he was, but there was no chance of seeing a swift from that distance. It quickly flew by him and continued off to the south. He was the only one to see it. He also was lucky enough to photograph it too, especially considering he had just been doing some landscape photography and had a 70-200 mm lens on his camera instead of his usual 400 mm.

I took a look at the LCD display on his camera when Jess got back down to Lower Base. He was assuming it was a Fork-tailed due to some white on it, or at least that’s what he said. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit to considering the much more unlikely alternative. Anyway, as soon as I looked at the LCD, I was hit by several emotions. I gave him a look, paused, and said, “The white isn’t in the right place for a Fork-tailed.” Jess thought maybe it was just a bad photo, but I still thought it was a White-throated Needletail.

Once back on the Puk-uk, Jess downloaded the photos, and now we could see that yes, it was in fact a White-throated Needletail, a species that’s been seen only four times in the ABA Area with the last sighting in 1985. Two previous sightings were from Attu, and the other two were from nearby Shemya. I had mixed feelings. I was incredibly happy that someone on the trip found and photographed such a rare bird. But I wasn’t all that happy about not seeing it! Actually, I was holding up surprisingly well, and I think everyone else was, too. Now, when I think about how the bird flying around Billy the previous day may have been the same swift, and who knows how long it stuck around….Well, I try not to think about it.

White-throated-Needletail. Photo by Jess Findlay.

White-throated-Needletail. Photo by Jess Findlay.

We woke up the next morning [June 6] to our final day on the island. The original plan was to hike Gilbert Ridge and then Alexei Point one more time, but we felt compelled to hike to the South Beach area first to make sure the swift wasn’t still in the area. It was not, but Isaac turned up another Rustic Bunting near Big Lake. We made it over to Alexei Point in the afternoon. Some of the group hiked towards Gilbert Ridge while I took the others around the point itself. The other group reported that the two Smews were still in a pond near the base of the point. The point was fairly quiet, but we did come across a Bar-tailed Godwit and then an Emperor Goose. After flushing one from Gilbert Ridge a few days earlier without anyone but two guides seeing it, it was good to get this one. We were able to set up scopes and get everyone on it.

As we were returning to the boat, a fog bank rolled in. Jess was the last one back, and as he was walking along the beach, a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel suddenly appeared right beside him. He says the bird looked at him, then looked down and saw that it was longer over water, and then made a quick turn to get back to more comfortable surroundings. I was nearby and saw that it was flying towards the Puk-uk, so I radioed to the boat. A few people came out on the aft deck to see it fly by.

Once Jess and I got back on the boat, the skiff was lifted back on the foredeck and we headed east for the two-day trip back to Adak. We saw all the usual species on the return trip, including Short-tailed Albatross on one day. Our luck with Mottled Petrels continued, too. A few were seen on June 7 and about 50 on June 8. Their behavior on the latter date was interesting. Many of them were flying high and direct, rather than the arcing flight typically associated with gadfly petrels. Before heading into the harbor at Adak on June 9, we detoured over to Little Tanaga Strait to spend more time with the Whiskered Auklets.

We had some of our closest encounters with Mottled Petrels on June 8. This is an uncropped photo from that day.

We had some of our closest encounters with Mottled Petrels on June 8. This is an uncropped photo from that day.

A cropped version of the previous photo. Despite the close proximity, I wasn’t able to get a great photo.

A cropped version of the previous photo. Despite the close proximity, I wasn’t able to get a great photo.

A few more Mottled Petrels from June 8:



Whiskered Auklets in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9:




Ancient Murrelet in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9.

Ancient Murrelet in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9.

Tufted Puffin in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9.

Tufted Puffin in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9.

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