Sunday, June 25, 2017

Leaving Attu

June 1, 2017

Our last day on the island.  The plan was to go to Gilbert Ridge and Alexai Point again, in search of vagrants that had been brought down by the rains over the last few days.  Our last trip to the point had been scuttled by word of a Smew, so there could be shorebirds that had yet to be discovered.  Scopolamine patches had been applied, and we were ready for our final trek on Attu.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast had changed--for the worse, so an early departure was now anticipated.  Instead of leaving after supper, we'd be heading east by mid-afternoon.  This change in the weather also meant that a landing near the stinky whale was off. We would start at Alexai once again.
Cackling Goose nest on Alexai Point.  A Glaucous-winged Gull took an egg and swallowed it whole.

Since we knew our time would be limited, we split into two groups right away.  The Gilbert Ridge plan, as it had been on our second day, would be to walk partway along the ridge trail then return to Alexai Point.  The Alexai Point group would focus on the coastal areas, trying for an extra-interesting shorebird.  If either group found a good new bird, the other would meet up with them.

We were becoming quite familiar with the routes, just in time for our departure.  I went with the Gilbert Ridge group, led by Neil, and comprised of Monica, Greg, and Dave.  Dave and I were lagging a bit behind the others about a kilometer away from the team at the point when he said to me, "I wonder what would happen if they found a good bird back at the point?  Would we go back or carry on as planned?"  Do you remember in The Big Year when Brad said to Stu, "The birds will still be here--unless there's a freak snowstorm"? Well, life imitates art.  Less than a minute later, we heard John on the radio, "Far Eastern Curlew, Far Eastern Curlew!"  The bird was flying, and had not been located on the ground.  Should we stay or should we go?  The decision was unanimous.  Continue on our planned route.
Far Eastern Curlew - Brad Benter

The ground was supersaturated, and in many places, the path was submerged.  As bad as the path was, the ground at the base of the cliffs was even worse, making Neil's job a lot more difficult.  One of our targets was a Common Cuckoo, as this species was most often found in June, and it was now June.  Would luck be with us? We kept going, but the only birds we were seeing were the now familiar Song Sparrows.  We were a couple of miles along the route, when we got a call from Nicole from the Puk-uk.  Brad had relocated the Smew and possibly a small flock of Taiga Bean-Geese at Henderson Marsh.  You could almost hear the eyes roll in our heads.  There were two, possibly three new birds available, but all miles away from us.  The Puk-uk was going to pick up the group at Alexai Point.  We could choose to hike quickly back to join them, as there is no place along the ridge for a safe skiff landing, or we could hike quickly to Henderson Marsh. The group decided there was no turning back!  With a hopeful voice, I asked just how long this would take if we hiked quickly.  The answer: 2 hours.   I was hoping for 45 minutes!  At this clip, we wouldn't be searching for birds along the way, although I think all of us were listening hard in case we heard an unfamiliar voice.

The guys got well ahead of Monica and me, but we were making pretty good time.  They radioed back about the river being swollen and much deeper than it was on Day 2, but it could still be crossed.  We were about 15 minutes behind them, so they'd had lunch while they waited in the lea of a hill. The wind had really picked up.

I underestimated the depth of the river and got a boot full of water, but got to the meeting point in time to eat half a sandwich before the group from the Puk-uk arrived.  On their way from Alexai Point, a Black Oystercatcher--rare for Attu--had crossed their path.  I reminded John that I had predicted a Black Oystercatcher the evening before when reviewing the checklist.

Now that our group was reassembled, we headed along the old road on the south edge of Henderson Marsh towards the aptly named Smew Pond.  Given the skittishness of the birds, we were travelling slowly and quietly.  As we approached, we saw three Red-breasted Mergansers along with a few other ducks, but no Smew.  Again.  When they saw us, the birds took off, the three mergansers passing behind a knoll almost directly across from where we stood. Three birds went in.  Four came out!  SMEW!!!!   We all got unsatisfactory looks of the Smew as she flew away from us.  But then, the group turned around, made a loop almost over our heads, then flew towards the shore again.  Much better looks this time!

Female Smew - Brad Benter (Taken a few days before we saw her, but probably the same bird.)

Next we were off on a wild goose chase, in search of the possible Taiga Bean-Goose.  Despite walking much of the marsh, we couldn't find anything even close.  We were about to head back to the beach when Brad came rolling in on his all-terrain bicycle.The geese were gone, but he had photos.  After a quick review, the decision was that the geese were probably Tundra Bean-Geese, after all. (Just checking Brad's eBird list and the jury may still be out on that. You really should look at this list. Quite the day he had on June 1!) But we got a Smew!  Brad had had an even better day.  He had been past Engineer Hill and out to Sarana Bay, about a three-hour hike away and had found Brown Shrike, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Rustic Bunting, Bar-tailed Godwit, more Common Rosefinches, and several of the more common Attu vagrants.  In that moment, I understood why people kept returning to Attu over and over.  Anything could happen. It was time for us to go back to the boat, and we were leaving some very good birds behind.

With the winds and the waves pushing us around again, there was no chance to swing close to Alexai Point for a possible look for the curlew, but there had been one hanging around at Adak, so there was still a chance for those who didn't see the flyby.  I went to the pilot house as quickly as I could after boarding. If we were going to have a rough ride, I needed to be in position to get some birds I missed on the way to Attu. Watch the horizon in the window behind Neil in this video for a small taste of what we were getting. Videos don't do it justice, though, as the movement of the boat offsets the movement of the ocean some.

Weather discussion on board as we leave Attu.  Featuring John Puschock, Patty O'Neill, and Neil Hayward.  View full screen for best effect.

The seas were not kind, but the birds were,  Over the course of the afternoon, I added Mottled Petrel and Red-legged Kittiwake to my life list.  Short-tailed Shearwaters, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Northern Fulmars accompanied us as we made our way. I was tired after our arduous hike, but determined to stay put as long as I could.  I knew if I went to the cabin, I'd be staying there for a while.
How many species?  No chumming involved!

In a fit of overconfidence, when Nicole announced that dinner was ready, I foolishly went to the galley and ate.  I was only about halfway through when I became profoundly aware of the error of my ways.  Passing my plate to Nicole, I asked if I could please have another garbage bag.  Due to the rough seas en route, we'd gone through more than our fair share, so she suggested that I might retire to one of the more favored locations, the stern of the boat, or one of the heads.  On some pelagic trips, relieving seasickness in the heads is forbidden. Not so on the Puk-uk.  They are usually cramped airless spaces and, well, you know...  I assured Nicole that there was no way I was making it to the stern, and I wasn't confident that I would make it to the head, but I'd try.  I still wanted the bag just in case, and would return it if it wasn't used.  Bag in hand, I raced to the head. Success!  Sort of.  The rocking of the ship brought gravity into play and the toilet seat came down on my head with a thunk!  It is difficult to maintain one's dignity in such a situation.   Pro tip: When puking on a rocking ship, hold the toilet seat up with one hand.  I went to my bunk and my stash of hard candies, deliberately on board to deal with the aftereffects.

eBird Checklist: June 1
Next: Spectacular Seabird Colonies and Adak Revisited

1 comment:

  1. Wow wow wow! Congrats on the Smew yes no wonder people keep going to Attu despite the negatives days like you and especially Brad had make it all worthwhile! This is so intriguing thanks for posting this amazing report