This was the focus of the Zugunruhe Bird Tours trip that had both caught my attention and also gave me the most apprehension. The tour description is included in my previous blog post – essentially it was to be 4 days/nights at sea with some great Alaskan birds as the targets. For most birders the highlights were to be Whiskered Auklet and Short Tailed Albatross with a good chance at Mottled Petrel. Also as described in that earlier blog post, plans were changed and weather both cut off a day at sea and also changed our destination from Sequam Pass to a more protected area.
After another good dinner prepared by Nicole, we left our dock in sheltered seas but that changed as we hit open water and the boat tossed and turned. Not terrible and not scary but this was my first night at sea and sleep was not easy – probably more because of a worry about “what if it gets worse” rather than the conditions themselves. There were maybe only 5 or so hours of darkness anyhow, so sleep was short in any event. But we were here to bird and not to sleep, so getting up and about was welcome even with the boat’s tossing and pitching.
Time out for a description of boat, crew and birders. The Puk Uk was indeed quite comfortable and seaworthy. Onboard Billy Choate was our captain and he was joined by First Mate Oxsana and Cook Nicole – all terrific. John Puschock was our leader and Neil Hayward was helping John as co-leader and spotter. Both had also just led a trip to Attu on the Puk Uk and were terrific with the birds in Alaska.
Neil is the current ABA Big Year leader with 749 species seen in 2013. I just finished reading his brand new chronicle of that year, Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year. Especially enjoyable to birders, it is a great read in any event as Neil very honestly deals with emotions, psychology and “life”. Highly recommended to everyone.
John and Neil were superb and obviously accomplished birders, but others in the group were quite impressive as well, and there was also a fascinating situation/dynamic in that one in the group, Olaf Danielson was well into his own Big Year and seemed poised to break Neil’s record – and Neil was essentially helping him do so. Olaf in fact already held one Big Year record – having seen the most ABA species in one year – nude – shoes, hats and gloves the only exceptions to the no clothes requirement. Olaf’s Nude Big Year was in 2012 and 2013 (so not a calendar year) and resulted in 594 species seen in the buff. Of course there was a book (Olaf is a fiction writer as well as birder, businessman and doctor) and of course it is titled Boobies, Peckers and Tits – the next book on my reading list.
The Rock Ptarmigan was species 700 for the year for Olaf on Adak and he was to add many more during the pelagic and then the return to Adak and he kept his clothes on for all of them. Olaf’s daughter accompanied him. I had her name as Lauren but believe she goes by Lena or maybe that is the name and I am wrong about the other. In any event she is 16, bright, personable and able to both put up with her father and also with a boatload of birders living in close quarters – quite impressive. Impressive too were our other birders. I shared my berth with Bart Whelton from Spokane and Jay Gilliam from Norwalk, Iowa. Both were good company and good birders with ABA lists over 700 and for Bart – a world life list of more than 6000. He had bird lists from places I had not even heard of and had also been to the international spots where I had birded making shared stories easy.
Chris Feeney is from Georgia and was working hard to reach the lofty heights of 800 ABA species. Every new bird was precious and Chris was dedicated and talented in finding them. I think that after Adak and the pelagic, Chris was around 790 (hope I am not short changing him). Rounding out the group were Paul Budde (from Minnesota but now in Washington, D.C.) and Don Harrington – another Minnesotan. Sadly, I did not spend enough time with Paul to learn his story – in part because he may have been the most dedicated birder on deck braving the wind and spray outside more than any of us. Clearly a superb birder I know he has been very active in the Minnesota Ornithological Union. Don also was on my Nome trip and is a great photographer – and that will be my last comment on him.
Back to the boat – here are some photos of the interior and our crew. I really cannot say enough about how good they were and the food really was outstanding.
Nicole in the Galley
John, Bart and Chris at the Benches/Tables
Captain Billy, Nicole, First Mate Oxsana, John and Jay
Olaf and Lauren/Lena Danielson
And now again – back to the birds…
As anyone who has taken a pelagic trip knows, it is an up and down matter – both as relates to the movement of the boat and the presence and absence of birds. There are long periods of time with little or no activity, short bursts of frenzied activity, some sustained activity – especially with chumming and the constant sense of possibility. One challenge is that with some species being so scarce – if you miss the one sighting that may have been the only time the bird was seen and you are out of luck. So there is great incentive to be out on the deck and also great value in having many trained eyes and good shared communication. Heavy seas and heavy winds (often going together) are additional challenges. All in all however, the weather was not too bad and it was possible to find places on the deck where there was at least some shelter from the wind and despite heavy cloud cover, there was very little rain – a big plus.
I am not going to chronicle what was seen when and how many – just going to cut to the chase and then embellish a bit. The two stars of the show for everyone (well except me in a way) were the Whiskered Auklets and the Short Tailed Albatross. The former were numerous and mostly quick flybys or floating on the water but neither close at hand nor in good light. The latter was a single bird – and only a juvenile but oh boy what a bird – especially very up close and personal at our chum stop. I had an extremely brief and poor look and quick picture of an immature Short Tailed Albatross on a Westport Pelagic trip in 2014 so it was not the prized lifer that it was for almost everyone else on board. But being able to see it so well made it easy to appreciate and admire its size and power. Especially the case when it was paired so readily with numerous Laysan Albatrosses both in flight and on the water.
Short Tailed and Laysan Albatrosses
A Short Tailed Albatross is a big bird – 3 foot body and 7 foot wingspan and weighing over 16 pounds (a lot for a bird). When you see a Laysan Albatross alone, it looks big as well but weighs half as much with shorter wings and body. Both are amazing flyers. The Laysan is not common in Washington but I have been fortunate to see one up close and get a good photo and some are seen most years. All albatrosses have huge bills and big feet gving them a gawky look but oh can they fly.
Short Tailed Albatross on Water
Laysan Albatross Landing
Albatrosses with Chum
We also saw a single Black Footed Albatross – the common albatross in Washington where I have seen as many as 170 on a single trip!! The Short Tailed Albatross breeds on Islands off Japan and has a world population of fewer than 2500. The Laysan breeds on Pacific Islands – particularly at Midway Island and has a world population of just under 1 million birds.
The most common species coming to our chum (and also seen while motoring) were Short Tailed Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars. I have seen both in Washington although there the former is far outnumbered by Sooty Shearwaters.
Short Tailed Shearwater
All of these birds are Procellariformes or “tubenoses”. The “tube” is a special gland that allows them to drink seawater and excrete the salt since they live primarily in the open ocean and do not have access to freshwater. On most pelagic trips these birds are one of the highlights but especially in Alaska that honor is shared by the alcids – Northern Hemisphere birds replaced by penguins in the Southern Hemisphere. These were the birds of most interest to me as they would be mostly life birds or at least life picture birds. And of course the Whiskered Auklet was the real prize. It is not that they are rare – just that they have a very limited range. In fact all told we surely saw more than a thousand but only in very few places.
Whiskered Auklet on the Water
These guys do not come in for chumming and always seemed to be flying away from the boat so pictures were a challenge but all were thrilled to add this species to life or year lists – including me. I also added Least and Crested Auklets to my life list and we also saw a few Parakeet Auklets (no photos). They were far less common and again very difficult to photograph. A single poor picture of the former but none of the latter.
On my trip to Glacier Bay I had looked very hard for and finally found a single Horned Puffin. It was one of the birds I most wanted to see and photograph on this trip. Surprisingly all puffins were few and far between and I managed to see only a handful of Horned Puffins and was able only to get pretty crummy photos.
We had many Common Murres but a disappointment was that we had no Thick Billed Murres – not a life bird as I have seen the one that hung out at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles but a good photo would have been nice. And while we did have some Ancient Murrelets, no Long Billed Murrelets which would have been a great surprise and welcomed.
While there were some misses on the trip (there always are) there was also a great unexpected bonus (which there sometimes are). We never saw a Mottled Petrel – hopefully someday in Washington for example. We had seen a few Back Legged Kittiwakes – nice and expected birds. Again birds I have seen often in Washington. What I had not seen and knew was only remotely possible was a Red Legged Kittiwake. I believe it was Neil that first spotted the bird and I fortunately was on deck and close when he did. It was not around long, but it was cooperative and while my photos do not show the red legs (they are folded up and tucked in when the bird is in flight), I could readily see the smaller yellow bill and darker mantle that distinguishes it from its black legged cousin.
Red Legged Kittiwake
As can be seen from all of the photos – it was pretty dismal gray the whole time we were at sea. But all in all a very pleasant trip with moderate (15-25 knot) winds and ok seas. It is tempting to go into details on some of Nicole’s food creations but I am trying to lose some of the weight gained on the trip and do not want to be tempted – especially the amazing pizzas she created from scratch. We generally anchored for the nights in calm sheltered waters and I slept much better than expected and fortunately had no seasickness at all. Neither did anyone else.
I was not sure where to insert this trip highlight and figure this is as good a spot as any. It is often the case that small birds will inadvertently fly onto ships at sea. This is true on pelagic birding trips as well and I have seen a number of passerines on Westport trips. But we were treated to some truly special visitors on our journey. One night we had both a Leach’s and a Fork Tailed Storm Petrel fly on board. Another time we were visited by one of the Whiskered Auklets. The latter was not able to get up enough “go” to fly off over the railing so it was captured and viewed closely by all before it was released. So much better than the distant fleeting views in rolling seas, under gray skies from a bouncing boat.
Whiskered Auklet Onboard
As I indicated in the previous post, we birded an additional morning when we returned to Adak. I forgot to add them then so will now. One of the nice sightings on Adak was not of birds but of always beautiful Sea Otters – usually a mom with baby floating by her side or on her stomach.
At sea we had also come across a small group of Steller’s Sea Lions. Only a brief look at some Orcas and a couple of distant whales but nothing else on the marine mammal front.
Steller’s Sea Lions
After the morning back on Adak, the bad news was saying goodbye to a fascinating place and some wonderful people. The good news was that our plane was on time and weather would not be a problem for the trip to Anchorage and then to Nome. It had been a good trip. I added 30 species to my Alaska List and the following 10 species to my ABA List:
Far Eastern Curlew, Kittzlitz’s Murrelet, Rock Ptarmigan, Aleutian Tern, Common Snipe, Hawfinch, Whiskered Auklet, Least Auklet, Crested Auklet, and Red Legged Kittiwake.
It was now off to Nome and more adventures.