Attu 2013: after the fallout

June 1: We had high hopes this morning. Yesterday was a HUGE day, Zugunruhe Birding Tours’ best day yet at Attu (IMO, better than finding the ABA Area’s first accepted Solitary Snipe in 2010…and yes, I’m species name dropping now). There were four Code 4 birds and more Code 3s than you can shake a stick at. The question was where to go? It was a difficult decision. I considered doing Alexei Point and Gilbert Ridge again. They’re some of the best places for vagrants, and we had just killed it there the day before. But there was also the chance that we’d just find the same birds as yesterday. The urge to see what other spots held won out, though just barely.

We were anchored in Casco Cove, and we woke to heavy cloud cover and no wind. The cove was flat calm, and the Glaucous-winged Gulls looked like they were swimming on a mirror.

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We briefly had a Slaty-backed Gull on the cove, but it wasn’t close and didn’t stick around for long. Very few got to see it, but our first Kittlitz’s Murrelets of the trip were much more cooperative. Everyone who wanted got scope views of a pair of these birds from the Puk-uk’s aft deck.

Isaac was the first guide to go ashore, and a flock of three Rustic Buntings flew past when he got on land. Things were looking good…

…But I won’t leave you hanging. Those buntings were about it for the day. We checked out Murder Point, South Beach, Big Lake, and Blue Robin Canyon but couldn’t find any other vagrants. Either they left overnight or never settled in this area. It was a little hard coming down from yesterday. Later we moved up to the runway area and some of us found a flock of Aleutian Terns (they seem to be arriving later than in the past, and declining throughout the Aleutians) and a few fly-over Pacific Golden-Plovers.

June 2: After yesterday’s showing, we did the only sensible thing – we went back to Alexei and Gilbert Ridge. Some of the birds from two days ago where still sticking around: the two Smew and Wood Sandpiper were on the ponds at the base of Alexei Point plus a male Siberian Rubythroat nearby. The point itself gave us another Asian shorebird, a Whimbrel of the variegatus subspecies. It has a few plumage differences from the North American subspecies, the most obvious being a white wedge on its back.

After finishing Alexei, Jess and a few participants boarded the Puk-uk for a trip over to Massacre Beach. The plan was for them to bird West Massacre Valley and Henderson Marsh while the rest of us hiked west along Gilbert Ridge. One of the most interesting birds of the trip was one that got away from Jess’s group. Just after landing on Massacre Beach, they briefly saw a “Snow Bunting” singing that was all white except for black wing tips. The local male Snow Bunting quickly chased it off. Based on the description, it sounds as though they just missed being the first to document a McKay’s Bunting on Attu. They had a few other interesting birds, though neither was seen very well. A snipe, most likely a Common, was flushed and then lost in the marsh, and an Eastern Yellow Wagtail was seen flying eastward towards the beach.

Meanwhile, back on the ridge, we had an Emperor Goose (but leader-only) and a Short-eared Owl. Just like the Short-eared Owl we saw last year, this one was very pale. The Short-eareds that show up on Attu are thought to be coming from Asia. Otherwise, most of the birds from our big day were gone. We had a fly-by Eastern Yellow Wagtail. It came by several minutes after the group in West Massacre Valley saw theirs, so it may have been the same individual.

At the end of the day, both groups met up to look for the possible McKay’s Bunting. No luck, but while we were just sitting around enjoying some great weather, Jill, one of the tour participants noticed that an Arctic Loon was foraging just offshore. It stayed around for at least 30 minutes, allowing some of the group who had decided to spend more time on Gilbert Ridge to catch up. That bird, coupled with dinner on the foredeck while enjoying the sunshine and the reflections of the ridge on the calm waters of Massacre Bay, was a great ending to the day.

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June 3: We made plans to split up today. Even though this was my third year of bringing groups to the island, I had not yet visited Engineer Hill and the Japanese peace memorial. Four tour participants joined me on the climb up to the site of the last major Japanese attack of the Battle of Attu. The 70th anniversary of the attack happened just a few days earlier on May 29. Meanwhile, the others, led by Isaac and Jess, were heading back to Henderson Marsh to try to re-find the snipe from the day before.

As usually happens on Attu, we were a little distracted before we could get to our respective destinations. Isaac found a male Siberian Rubythroat singing from the top of some stream-side vegetation just west of the runway bridge over the Peaceful River. It was a bit more cooperative than our previous Rubythroats.

The trip to the memorial was interesting. Visiting this site where so many died in battle took me out of “birding mode” for the first time in several weeks. Of course, I still noticed the birds that were up here: a pair of Snowy Owls, a Rock Sandpiper near the memorial itself, and a possibly briefly heard Rock Ptarmigan. The ptarmigans are much, much more scarce than they were a decade ago, so this was notable despite the uncertainty.

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The other group didn’t have much luck with the snipe. It was briefly heard calling, but it could not be located. Late in the afternoon, I went to check out Barbara Point while Isaac checked the shoreline near Navy Town. He turned up three Bar-tailed Godwits, our only ones for this trip. Everyone convened to get a look. The godwits were conveniently located as we had a 5 PM date near Smew Pond, not too far to the north. US Fish & Wildlife Service personnel were installing a new memorial commemorating Pvt. Joseph Martinez, the recipient of the only Medal of Honor awarded in the Battle of Attu, and they invited us to the ceremony. As we biked up there, an Eastern Yellow Wagtail called as it flew overhead.

As you can imagine, there weren’t many there, so it was a happy coincidence that we could provide more of a “crowd” for the ceremony. We had a small cookout afterward.

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