Attu 2013

We’ve just returned from Zugunruhe Birding Tours’ first trip of 2013 to Attu. Normally, we do this as a two-week trip, but this one was only one-week long with only two days at Attu. It was so short because we were joining a Japanese television crew’s charter to the island. They were working on a show about the Battle of Attu — this year marks the 70th anniversary of the fighting – and they shared their unused space onboard the boat.

We departed Adak in the early evening of May 19. While there were birds around us immediately, mostly alcids, Northern Fulmars, and Laysan Albatrosses, we had to wait for the next morning to get one of our big targets: Short-tailed Albatross. An adult came up from behind on the starboard side. We slowed and it landed on the water. It wasn’t interested in chum, but it sat on the water for several minutes, giving great views.


Continuing westward, there was another sighting of an adult Short-tailed Albatross about an hour later. It’s hard to say if it was a different bird or not.

The next bit of excitement came late on the same day. Mottled Petrels started to fly from north to south in front of us. They were extremely fast. It was hard to get a good look at them, and there was no hope of a photograph. One would appear every 15 minutes or so, and that continued until we had counted at least nine. There was a break in the action a few hours before dark, but the show continued the next morning. Just east of Buldir, another six or so petrels flew in front of us just like the previous night. Again, they were too fast for photos.


We arrived at Attu on May 22. We had a late start and only birded around Casco Cove, the runways, and the Peaceful River. The only Asian birds of note were six Tufted Ducks and one male Eurasian Wigeon.

On May 23, we birded longer and had more to show for it. At sunrise, there was a Slaty-backed Gull with a group of Glaucous-winged Gulls on Casco Cove. The gulls drifted off before most of the group got a look at the Slaty-backed, but the gull was kind enough to make another showing less than two hours later at the south end of the north-south runway. This time it stuck around long enough for everyone to get scope views of it.

Our next stop was Smew Pond and Henderson Marsh. There was nothing on the pond, so we continued on and birded the hillside on the north side of the valley here. A Brambling made an appearance, giving scope views. Meanwhile, my co-leader, Jess Findlay had been walking around the marsh. He had heard a call note that he didn’t recognize but he couldn’t find what was making it. Most of the group followed him back to where he had heard it, and we quickly flushed a Wood Sandpiper. We got a scope on it, but we momentarily forgot about it when I spotted a small duck flying up the valley – it was a female Smew. Talk about luck.

Departure time came way too fast, and by 6:45 PM we were headed back to Adak. As we passed by the east end of Attu, we were greeted by a large pod of Killer Whales. There were also several flocks of gulls on the water. They were mostly Glaucous-wingeds, but two Slaty-backeds and a probably Vega Herring Gull were mixed in.

On the afternoon of May 24, we were almost at Kiska when a subadult Short-tailed Albatross flew up our wake. We slowed and began chumming. Like before, the Short-tailed wouldn’t join the Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, but it did sit nearby, allowing us to soak it in. We were also able to soak in a second-year Red-legged Kittiwake. When we started chumming, this gull flew right up to the stern of the boat. At times, it was less than ten feet from us. We had seen about 10 adult Red-leggeds previously, but they were all quick fly-bys. This was the best look at one for the entire trip.

May 25 was our last full day at sea. While crossing Amchitka Pass, we saw another dozen Mottled Petrels. Again, they went by too quickly to get a photograph. We made it to the south side of Gareloi Island in the afternoon. Here we found two Black-headed Gulls.

As the sun rose on the final day of the tour, May 26, we approached Little Tanaga Strait, one of the best places on earth to see Whiskered Auklets, and today was no exception. The auklets were scattered about the strait in groups. The largest one had several thousand individuals. We spent over an hour studying and photographing these guys before heading back to the dock at Adak. We’ll pick up a new group and head back to Attu on a two-week trip.


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