Attu 2013, part II

The second trip to Attu this year started late. The flight from Adak was delayed an hour, and we didn’t get underway until after 8 PM. Since the wind was coming from the north, we wanted to head out on the south side of the islands for a more comfortable ride, so we headed to Little Tanaga Pass. There were less Whiskered Auklets around than in the morning, but we did encounter several good sized flocks at the south end of the pass.


The next day was uncomfortable with slow going into a headwind and bumpy seas. We saw two or three subadult Short-tailed Albatrosses, four Mottled Petrels, and one Red-legged Kittwake, but the views weren’t the best due to conditions. We had a much more pleasant experience the following day. As we traveled between Kiska and Buldir, I saw we were approaching a rise in the sea floor. I started chumming, and in about five minutes, an adult Short-tailed Albatross flew in from the port side and passed within 30 feet of the stern. It continued on down the wake and sat on the water. We turned the boat around to get another look at it. We had good views of it, but it would never approach the boat though I continued chumming. Later, Bill, the captain of the Puk-uk, told me this Short-tailed was only several miles from where we encountered one on the previous trip, so it may have been the same one.

During the next several hours, we had a few more Mottled Petrels and a Leach’s Storm-Petrel. We also spotted a few sperm whales. We passed north of Buldir just after sunset.

Normally, we would’ve been at Attu before sunrise on Wednesday, the third full day of the trip, but the late start out of Adak and the poor conditions on Monday put us 12 hours behind schedule, so as the sun rose that day, we were still east of Shemya. We had smooth sailing overnight, but the winds picked up out of the southwest around 6:30 AM. It was a bit uncomfortable, but not nearly as bad as it had been on Monday. Early in the morning, a Mottled Petrel suddenly appeared just off the starboard side of the bow. It momentarily flew along with us and then made a left turn to pass in front of the bow. This was our best look yet at this elusive species, but unfortunately only a few of us were awake and above deck to see it.

The next few hours were uneventful until we entered the pass between Alaid and Attu. Isaac Helmericks, one of the guides on the trip, mentioned that Mottled Petrels are occasionally seen in good numbers here, and within five minutes, we started to detect some flying towards the northeast. Then we detect a few more…and a few more. It became evident that we were witnessing a major movement, and the photographers grabbed their cameras and moved out to the aft deck. Petrels were now passing us in an almost continuous stream, and at times five or more could be seen at once.


The petrel show continued all the way to Attu. There were still some flying by us well into Massacre Bay. The last one we encountered was only about ¾ of a nautical mile from the mouth of Casco Cove. Had we made the effort, we probably could’ve have seen some from land. We didn’t count how many we saw, but we estimated 300. Considering that we just happened to pass through this mass movement and have no idea when it actually began or ended, the number of petrels going through this pass that day could have been much higher.


Once we anchored in Casco Cove, we unloaded the bicycles and began birding as quickly as possible. The southwest winds at sea continued blowing through most of the afternoon before subsiding. I didn’t have access to a weather map, but I was hopeful that this weather was a sign that a storm was moving across the Aleutians, raising the possibility of vagrants arriving from Asia. We found a Eurasian Wigeon, a Tufted Duck, several Aleutian Terns, and a pair of Snowy Owls. The owls were in the same location – the lower slopes of Weston Mountain – where we found them nesting last year.

Winds were calm again on Thursday morning. We had been birding only a short time when Jess Findlay, another guide, found a male Siberian Rubythroat at Tattler Creek on the west side of Casco Cove. With such a quick start, I had high hopes for the day, but within an hour, the winds quickly picked up from the northwest. Soon they were howling and the bike ride up the north-south runway became an ordeal. Sustained winds were probably 30-40 mph, and Captain Billy reported gusts up to almost 60 mph back at the boat. At one point, I was riding up the runway when I found myself making an unplanned 90-degree right turn thanks to a gust of wind. Jess said he was literally knocked off his bike. We birded West Massacre Valley but didn’t turn up anything, which wasn’t a surprise considering the weather. In typical Aleutian fashion, the wind was accompanied by rain AND sunshine. Even though it was horrible weather to be birding in, I took it as a good sign that a storm was moving through. The change in the winds, along with their intensity, suggested that a low pressure system had just passed us. I was thinking the next day could be good.


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