Attu Wrap & Pelagic Magic

Well, this summer certainly is going fast. Here it is August and I still owe you one more blog post, wrapping up Zugunruhe Birding Tours’ spring Aleutian trips.

At the end of the last post, we had just returned to Adak after our second Attu trip of the spring. We ended with 88 species, beating our previous high count, from 2012, by 10. The other two-week trip we did, our first in 2010, had 74 species. Our one-week trip with the TV crew, which had just a day-and-a-half on Attu, found 66 species.

It’s a little difficult to decide what counts as a “noteworthy” bird or even what an Asian species is on these trips. Take for example Bar-tailed Godwit. Most would agree that it’s a “good” bird, but while it’s mostly an Old World species, it has a small breeding range in Alaska, and it’s more or less expected in the Aleutians during spring migration. So is it noteworthy? Asian? This is my dilemma, deciding what the “good bird” count is. It’s just a matter of opinion. Keeping that in mind, this year’s two-week trip was clearly our best yet for the good stuff. There were about 26 noteworthy species, compared to 17 in 2010 and 15 in 2012. Some luck was involved – for example, Jess spotting a White-throated Needletail as it zoomed past him on Mt. Weston – but the storm early in the trip was the biggest reason for this year’s results. (The one-week trip had 10 noteworthy species.)

OK, moving on, there was still some more birding after the Attu trip. A new batch of birders flew into Adak for a pelagic trip out to Seguam Pass and back. Seguam Pass is located east of Adak, and it’s one of the best spots in North America for Short-tailed Albatross. Tidal currents cause upwellings as they flow between the North Pacific and Bering Sea. The upwelling at Seguam Pass is particularly attractive to the Short-taileds.

We headed out of Adak in the early evening. There was enough daylight to make a run around Little Tanaga Pass to pick up Whiskered Auklet. We didn’t just “tick and go”, but we had plans to spend some quality time here at the end of the trip, so while we got some quality looks at the auklets, we didn’t linger. It takes the better part of a day to get to Seguam, so off we went.

When the sun came up, we were approaching the northeastern part of Atka Island. Korovin Volcano dominates this part of the island. At 5030 feet, it’s the highest point on Atka. We encountered huge numbers of Northern Fulmars around here, particularly to the northeast of the volcano, so I suspect there may be a breeding colony here, though apparently none is apparently known from here.

A Northern Fulmar with Korovin Volcano in the background. Photo by Jess Findlay.

A Northern Fulmar with Korovin Volcano in the background. Photo by Jess Findlay.

Most Fulmars in the Aleutians are dark though individuals range from very light to very dark. “Medium” individuals such as this one were a little more common around Korovin Volcano and Seguam Pass.

Most Fulmars in the Aleutians are dark though individuals range from very light to very dark. “Medium” individuals such as this one were a little more common around Korovin Volcano and Seguam Pass.

Much of the afternoon was spent north of Amlia Island. An immature Short-tailed Albatross made a quick pass off our port side, but otherwise, it was an uneventful ride until we made it to Seguam Pass. Here we were surrounded by thousands of fulmars and hundreds of Laysan Albatrosses. We also had a few Mottled Petrels zip by. There were a few Black-footed Albatrosses as well, but no Short-tailed Albatrosses. We continued on, heading south, but encountered thick fog. After about 15 minutes, it showed no sign of letting up, so I made the decision to turn around. I figured we could get back into the clear out, put out some chum, and wait for some Short-taileds to come in.

Black-footed Albatrosses have normally been fairly rare on our trips with only a few being seen per day, but they were more common this year with 10+ being seen most days.

Black-footed Albatrosses have normally been fairly rare on our trips with only a few being seen per day, but they were more common this year with 10+ being seen most days.

Many birds did come into the chum, but the species composition remained essentially the same: huge numbers of fulmars with Laysans and a few Black-footeds making up the balance. They were all around the boat in all directions. While no Short-taileds showed up, a pod of Killer Whales made an appearance, a few even approached the Puk-uk.

We were surrounded by Fulmars and Laysan Albatrosses in Seguam Pass. Photo by Jess Findlay.

We were surrounded by Fulmars and Laysan Albatrosses in Seguam Pass. Photo by Jess Findlay.

A feeding frenzy in Seguam Pass.

A feeding frenzy in Seguam Pass.

A few of the Killer Whales made a close pass by the boat.

A few of the Killer Whales made a close pass by the boat.

It was getting late, so we decided to call it a day and head west to the north shore of Amlia Island. We had to proceed carefully, as there are still some uncharted waters around the island. We found a cove and dropped anchor for the night.

The next morning we ran back to the pass while we had breakfast. As we cleared the east end of Amlia, it was clear that something was a little different from the previous day. There were more Laysans milling about, and it wasn’t long before a Short-tailed made an appearance. The first one was a young one, almost all brown. Yes, I did say “first one” because there were quite a few more within the next two hours. We encountered a sub-adult as we proceeded to the southwest, and then a short time later, I called out an adult, but after we started chumming, an older subadult came in. I figured I made a mistake, but shortly we had FOUR Short-taileds around the boat: two subadults and two adults. So I’ll just claim the two-bird theory (or four-bird theory) here.

The second Short-tailed Albatross of the day, a subadult.

The second Short-tailed Albatross of the day, a subadult.

Not the world’s greatest photo, but it has all three North Pacific albatrosses in it.

Not the world’s greatest photo, but it has all three North Pacific albatrosses in it.

We continued to motor to the southwest. Now that we had our main targets (Whiskered Auklet, Short-tailed Albatross, and Mottled Petrel), the plan was to head as far out over the Aleutian Trench as we could get. The birdlife here isn’t known as well as it is to the north of the Aleutians, so this was a truly exploratory effort. We had a few more Short-tailed Albatrosses come up in the wake, and several Mottled Petrels passed by, but otherwise this part of the trip was uneventful. The sea was getting a little rougher in the early afternoon, so we turned back to the northwest and made for Little Tanaga Pass. We made it back to the islands after dark and dropped anchor in a small bay in the pass itself.

An older subadult Short-tailed Albatross, southwest of Seguam Pass.

An older subadult Short-tailed Albatross, southwest of Seguam Pass.

An adult Short-tailed Albatross, southwest of Seguam Pass.

An adult Short-tailed Albatross, southwest of Seguam Pass.

One adult Short-tailed Albatross not enough for you? OK, here’s two.

One adult Short-tailed Albatross not enough for you? OK, here’s two.

On the final morning, we tried something new: We put the skiff in the water, and five of us attempted to get some of the best photos of Whiskered Auklets on the water ever. Whether we succeeded or not is debatable, but it certainly was fun. Using such a small boat allowed us to approach closer than we usually can on the Puk-uk. More importantly, we were much lower than we would be on the Puk-uk, much closer to eye-level with the auklets. It still wasn’t easy to get close to them, but we managed it with a few. Better light would’ve been nice, but I can’t complain. Being eye to eye with a Whiskered Auklet just 10 feet away was certainly a highlight of the trip for me.

Whiskered Auklet in Little Tanaga Pass.

Whiskered Auklet in Little Tanaga Pass.

Whiskered Auklet isn’t the only alcid in Little Tanaga Pass. Here’s a Parakeet Auklet. Other alcids commonly seen in the pass include Tufted and Horned Puffin, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, and Ancient Murrelet. Cassin’s, Least , and Crested Auklets are less common.

Whiskered Auklet isn’t the only alcid in Little Tanaga Pass. Here’s a Parakeet Auklet. Other alcids commonly seen in the pass include Tufted and Horned Puffin, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, and Ancient Murrelet. Cassin’s, Least, and Crested Auklets are less common.

We finished the pelagic with 31 species, including multiple great looks at two of the “marquee” species (Short-tailed Albatross and Whiskered Auklets) and good looks at the third (Mottled Petrel). Back at Adak, we celebrated a successful three-and-a-half weeks of birding at the ASBAG (that’s the Aleutian Sports Bar and Grill), birded around Adak the next morning, and then flew back to the Lower 48. It was good to be home, but I’m looking forward to next year’s adventure.

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