My birding experience in Alaska had been very limited – some incidental birding on a business trip to Anchorage in 1979, more incidental birding on a fishing trip to Alexander Creek in 1986 and a visit to Juneau and Glacier Bay with my kids in 1995. Those three trips resulted in a State List of 40 birds with the best ones being Boreal Owl, Horned Puffin and Hoary Redpoll. It was time to return for a concentrated trip to see some Alaska specialties and add to my ABA List. I had come to know John Puschock and thus know of his unique trips through his Zugunruhe Bird Tours to remote Alaskan destinations. He told me of a private trip he had arranged to Nome and I was interested. But that was a long way to go for just a four day trip so when he said he had room available on a very unique pelagic trip from Adak Island the makings of an Alaskan adventure was in order and I was interested.
The tour description: “This pelagic trip targets three of North America’s most-wanted pelagic species: Whiskered Auklet, Short-tailed Albatross, and Mottled Petrel. Other birds that are very likely including Laysan (usually in big numbers) and Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, Short-tailed Shearwater, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common and Thick-billed Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet, Cassin’s, Parakeet, Least, and Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffin. Both Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelet and Aleutian Tern can be seen fairly easily at Adak after the trip.” I was sold and signed up – with the Nome trip to be an add on after the 5 day Adak trip.
My blogging skills are not sufficient to share all the great moments and birds from the Alaskan trips and a single blogpost is far too limited to include even those experiences that I can relate so there will be three posts: this one covers birding on Adak Island before and after the pelagic trip; Part II will cover the pelagic trip itself and Part III will cover the extension to Nome.
Rather than chancing delays and disconnects getting from Seattle to Adak with only two flights a week to Adak, I opted to fly to Anchorage a day earlier (the origin of all flights to Adak). This gave me a chance to do some limited birding around my motel – specifically at Lake Spenard and Lake Hood in spectacular weather on the morning of May 29 before my flight to Adak. Nothing terribly exciting although the single Pectoral Sandpiper I found was an Ebird “rarity” and my Alaska Life List was increased to 57 birds. Moreso it certainly got me into the mood for some more specialized Alaskan birding and I was excited when I boarded the Alaska Airlines flight for Adak on the afternoon of May 29th. I was not looking forward to the flight but having a full row to myself (indeed 6 rows if I wanted them) was appreciated. The flight was easy with views mostly of clouds below. The sign welcoming us to the primitive Adak airport was thought provoking and accurate: “Adak, Alaska – Birthplace of the Winds”
Adak History and Geography
Adak is located in the Andreanof Islands, 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage and 350 miles west of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, at the end of the Aleutian Island Chain. It is the southern-most community in Alaska and has 122 sq. miles of land and 5 sq. miles of water. The Aleutians were historically occupied by Aleuts. Once heavily-populated Adak island was filled with many Aleut villages that were later abandoned in the early 1800s as the Aleut hunters followed the Russian fur trade Eastward and famine set in on the Andreanof Island group. However, they continued to actively hunt and fish around the island over years, until World War II broke out and Attu Island was occupied by the Japanese. This led to the establishment of a military presence on Adak beginning in August 1942 and Adak was attacked by Japanese fighter planes which strafed the island and dropped a few bombs in October 1942. Thus Adak was one of only a handful of places on U.S. soil actually subjected to an enemy air raid.
After World War II, Adak was developed as a Naval Air Station after the War, playing an important role during the Cold War as a submarine surveillance center. Large earthquakes rocked the Island in 1957, 1964 and 1977. At its peak, the station housed 6,000 naval personnel and their families. In 1994, severe cut-backs occurred, and family housing and schools were closed. The station officially closed on March 31, 1997, and currently houses approximately 30 Navy personnel and 200 civilian caretakers. Today the scene is quite sad as the abandoned military housing and installations are in great disrepair and have been vandalized and stripped of materials.
And now back to the birding…
It was definitely comforting to be see John Puschock at the airport. I do not want to even ponder what I would have done had he not been there. But as was the case throughout the trips, logistics were well handled by John and it was time to go birding. I met other members of the tour group including Neil Hayward, of ABA Big Year fame, who was serving as a co-leader on the trip. Much more on all of the participants later, but suffice it to say that I was in the company of extremely accomplished birders, all but one of whom had been to Alaska before for some serious birding and were now back on focused missions to add specific birds to very impressive lists.
We piled into two vehicles and were off in pursuit of one of those “vagrant specialties” that make these remote locations magnetic for birders. On a nearby beach we located two birds – a Whimbrel (Eurasian subspecies or race) and the real gem – a Far Eastern Curlew. So not long after arriving I had my first “lifer” and, if the Whimbrel is someday recognized as a distinct species and not a race, maybe two. While I “may” have been able myself to recognize the Far Eastern Curlew as different from the Long Billed Curlew found in my home Washington State, it was nice to be in the company of experts and also to know that in fact the Long Billed Curlew was not ever seen on Adak in any event. And this is what made birding here so appealing – even though there was not much bird density (except for Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and Lapland Longspurs – and more on them later) each bird was possibly or even likely to be something special and maybe even very special.
Far Eastern Curlew and Eurasian Whimbrel
Two more special birds were also seen fairly quickly, Aleutian Tern and Kittzlitz’s Murrelet. Both were life birds and high on my “target list” for the trip. I had expected to see both and probably frequently. Such was the case for the terns but we saw only a few of the Murrelets so it was particularly great to get photos of the first pair seen.
It had been a long day but in this part of Alaska, the days are very long in the summer and the sun shines (well at least shines through the cloud cover) for most of the day so all internal clocks are off. Time now to settle in to our boat that was to be home for the next 4 days and to head off on our pelagic journey — well not so fast. Heavy winds and heavy seas required a “Plan B” as it would be impossible to head to Sequam Pass that night – our target area for the Whiskered Auklets and more. It was determined to wait another day to bird more on Adak and then to either keep the original objective or to go to an alternate more weather friendly location.
Our home away from home was the M/V Puk-uk, a 72-foot vessel custom-built for Alaska charters. I had been on many pelagic birding trips out of Westport, Washington where I had encountered less than perfect weather, and a single pelagic trip out of Cape Town South Africa, where I had encountered truly scary weather, but these had all been day trips and I had not yet spent a single night onboard a boat of any kind. My apprehension was not assuaged when it was necessary to deal with a less than familiar obstacle course of ladders, railings, planks, barges and docks to get on board, but Captain Billy Choate and his crew made us very comfortable and once aboard the quarters may have been compact but the accommodation was comfortable and welcoming.
M/V Puk Uk
I had prepared for possible sea-sickness with an adequate supply of Dramamine and some wristbands but when I saw that most of the other birders were using scopolamine patches, I wondered if I would be ok with what would be ahead. So perhaps it was best that this first night would be anchored at the dock with minimal movement and calm conditions. I had been sick onboard only once – and I think it was more a question of something I had eaten than the sea movement – but I had seen many others with seasickness and I wanted no part of it.
Life on board was actually quite good. Our staterooms/berths were small (I shared a room with two others – Bart from Washington and Jay from Iowa) which meant there was an extra bunk which together with some “closet” space left plenty of room for cameras, binoculars and bags. Most importantly the kitchen and common room were super and more importantly still; Nicole our cook was terrific – as long as you followed the important rule to stay out of her kitchen space. Good food helps any situation. (Pictures will be added in Part II which covers the pelagic trip.)
With the changed plans, we birded Adak again the following morning. It started off with a mystery that sadly could not be solved. I left the boat to take my gear up the convoluted route to get to the cars. This involved some very tight passages and I did not want my camera and lens hanging down as it usually did so I packed in my pack to carry it up the ladders etc. When I got up onto the dock where the cars were parked I noticed maybe a dozen gulls. A Slaty Backed Gull had been seen by some in the group the night before so I paid some attention and among the Glaucous Winged Gulls I saw one with a very dark mantle, a white head and tail, a few very small white specks on its wingtips AND quite yellow bill, legs and feet. I could not remember the leg color of the Slaty Backed Gull and had great photos of that species from Tacoma in Washington. My camera was stowed away so I made the mistake of not immediately digging it out for a photo. My sense was that it was not a “small gull” – that is it was not Mew Gull sized for example.
The “Path” from Boat to Dock
When John and Neil came up onto the dock later I asked what gull here might have a dark mantle and yellow legs and feet and the answer essentially was “none”. I have definitely made observation errors before and certainly will again, but there was no doubt to me that the field marks of yellow legs and feet and dark mantle were accurate. And same for the clear head and tail. Without a photo or a more conscious and conscientious observation, the identity will have to remain a mystery. As I thought about it, it seemed at least consistent with Lesser Black Backed Gulls I have seen in Washington. Who knows…
As we birded the island we were able to add another special Asian Vagrant – Common Snipe. This is again a situation where having experts around was critical as the species is very similar to the Wilson’s Snipe (our snipe in Washington) which is also present on Adak and at one time both were considered the same species. But the call and winnowing sound are different – immediately recognized by John and Neil. It was quite overcast this day, so light for photos was not great, but I was able to capture a winnowing snipe which actually shows the individual tail feathers – and counting them is another way to distinguish the species.
We actually had access to only a small portion of Adak Island but the roads were good and we visited a number of likely spots including within the town and the abandoned housing, various other structures in the hills, the coast and inlets and “the Adak Forest”. The letter is pretty hilarious as Adak is essentially without trees and the forest is a small copse of stunted evergreens up one of the hills. John and Neil had placed seed near some of the trees (including a couple in town) and we scoured the trees carefully. Unfortunately at least on this day, we saw only “common birds” – Lapland Longspurs and Gray Rosy Finches. I have seen and photographed both often in Washington but I was excited to see the longspurs in full breeding plumage for the first time – truly beautiful birds.
The Adak “Forest”
Gray Crowned Rosy Finch
A Gyrfalcon had been seen frequently on the Island and this is the one bird that I was actually the first to spot as we traversed the hills. At first just a distant glance but then we followed it quite a distance and found it perched on one of the structures and it put on a great show. I have seen this species in Washington (including one this year and a gorgeous “white bird” three years ago, but it is always a treat). Not the greatest photos – but as just stated – always a treat.
As reported in an earlier blog post, I had already enjoyed a great year for “chickens” – gallinaceous birds such as quail, grouse etc. as a result of my wonderful trip to Colorado. I had 13 species of gallinaceous birds there with 4 additional species seen in Washington. This was all the more reason that I was eager to see two new “life chickens” in Alaska – Rock and Willow Ptarmigans. Adak delivered on the Rock Ptarmigan – seen frequently in the tundra in the hills – usually flying away from us as we drove by. But one cooperated for a nice photo and life bird number 5 for the trip. (More will be written on it in the last post but I also got the Willow Ptarmigan later at Nome).
This is where I am going to mix and match a bit as after the added day of birding on Adak we returned to the boat and took off for the pelagic part of the trip in a different Plan B direction. We returned after that for another morning of birding on Adak and I want to cover that here as well. Before our arrival at Adak on May 29th some other great birds had been seen including some Hawfinches, and a Temminck’s Stint. (Much earlier my prize bird had been seen – a pair of Smew). On our last morning on Adak we found one of these prizes – a nice male Hawfinch – an ABA life bird for me although I had seen them in Hungary more than 15 years ago.
It was time now to head back to Anchorage. Adak was fun and as will be written in the next post, so too was the pelagic trip. We missed the Red Faced Cormorants that were usually seen on Adak – too windy – but had some other birds that could not be counted on. Definitely a strange and mostly unwelcoming place in many ways. But great birding and great birding company. I don’t know that I will ever be back so definitely glad to have made the journey.