Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Months ago, when winter was ending, sort of, and birding was slow, and I was hard-pressed to find interesting things to post here, I thought I'd share my Attu birding story. I broke the story into several chapters, so it would last. I rationed them out, fearing an empty shelf. That was my habit as a newspaper and magazine editor: never use it all. Always have something left for next time. Attu, though, unfortunately got streched right into the reappearance of current events. Two "chapters" remain, the end of the story. Let's get on with it. In case you didn't read any of the previous installments, or read them so long ago that you no longer remember the story, here is a summary: In previous episodes, a friend and I went to Alaska to bird for month. One week was to be spent on Attu, the most distant of the Aleutian Islands. Attu, where the sun shines about 10 days a year, is a very good birding location because storms can blow Asian species to its shores. If you want to build an impressive North American species list, Attu was a must. I say "was" because the trips I'm writing about ceased to be. You still can go, by boat these days for about twice the previous already expensive price. Back in the day, the price was $5,000 for two weeks. Mike and I paid $2,000 for a special one-week trip. The plane taking us out there was grounded by weather or mechanical problems or other charters for four of our seven days. We got there, finally, on day five. Ours was a short visit. The last chapter posted here discussed the World War II battles fought on Attu, the only Pacific theater fighting on North American soil. Bicycles were used to get from place to place on the roadless island, which had only a small contingent of Coast Guard personnal as residents.
The Attu birding guide said we’re going to East Massacre Valley, which was miles away. Place names on Attu reflected its battle history: Murder Point, Massacre Bay, Navy Town Beach, Artillery Hill, Peaceful River, Debris Beach. Other names recounted the days of Russian fur traders, come for the Sea Otters: Nevidiskov Bay, Krasni Point. Birders contributed names: Puffin Island, Smew Pond, Brambling Beach, Tattler Creek.
If you were birding along Debris Beach on the edge of Massacre Valley and someone radioed about a really good bird being seen at Tattler Creek, you were six miles out of position. A long bike ride. A longer hike. This happened all the time. You’d go to where the good bird was. That bird would go back into the brush five minutes before you got there. Your next target bird could be miles away. Back and forth. Back and forth. That was another reason some people opted for three weeks. You needed time.
All of that activity produced big appetites and tired bodies. The food was very good. Sleeping conditions were something else. We had military bunks, metal frames holding cotton mattresses on which we spread our sleeping bags. Each pair of bunks had a small electric heater for drying our always-wet gear. The heaters were six inches square. Mike and I carefully constructed four-glove pyramids in front of the heaters each evening. By morning several fingers would be dry. Some – most – of the men who shared our bay snored. One of them was a virtuoso. He had volume. He had tone. He had an expansive array of snorts. Mike said listening to him snore was like watching someone play the violin with their feet.
The walls of the Attu bunkroom where we slept were covered with birder graffiti. Previous Attu visitors had written their names and life-list totals on the walls before they left. After all, most (all) of these birders had taken the trip to build those lists, North American lists mostly, some for birds seen in Alaska. No harm in bragging a bit.
Seven-hundred North American bird species seen or heard with positive identification was – is – the number that separates the men from the boys if you list. There are many geographically designated listing areas worldwide. The American Birding Association does this, publishing a map with boundaries boldly marked. You would know, for example, how close to shore you must be to consider a bird as being in North America. Or, how much of the water surrounding Antarctica belongs to that continent. Most divisions encompass continents or countries. North America is the most widely chosen, for the obvious reason.
For first-time visitors, almost any bird seen on Attu – well, except for Mallards and longspurs – would likely be new, additional birds for the life list. Stay two weeks, go home with 20 or 30 or 40 new species.
Serious listers, like those on Attu, would almost always be members of the American Birding Association. There are a number of good reasons to join. One could be the annually published list of listing totals, by state, continent, country, whatever. Here is where you could compare yourself to the crowd, measure your accomplishment. (Most recent list is for 2010.) The writing on the bunkroom walls was the only other place I’ve seen such totals.
You could say that Attu birders were members of a club, more frequent visits cementing that status. You were sharing your notes on the wall with people who understood your total of 592 or 671 or 713 or whatever, people who knew what that meant. Places to publish such numbers are very limited. And who among the uninitiated would understand? Or care.
That Alaska trip, a month long, was good for my list. Days in Nome, on St. Lawrence Island (Gambell village), and on St. Paul island in the Pribilof Islands were fruitful. I admit to disappointment, though, about the meager contribution made by Attu. I was minutes away from a third lifer. A friend who was on the island to work as a guide told me months later than just after our plane left a Great-spotted Woodpecker, resident of Eurasia, was seen along the runway. I’d rather not have known.
We had arrived the afternoon of day five and we departed the morning of day seven. That’s roughly 48 hours on Attu. That’s the record I mentioned: 48 hours -- shortest birder stay ever. The only chance that anyone else spent so little time there would have been created by a medical emergency for which a $15,000 air ambulance trip would have been required. I doubt it. We hold the record.
I might also hold the record for fewest life birds seen on an Attu trip. I forget Mike’s total. I saw two. A thousand dollars each for two birds, a Ruff and a Tufted Duck. I saw a Ruff the next year on a golf course in Arizona. The year after that I saw a Tufted Duck at a Minnesota sewage treatment plant.
I had to go, though. I had to be there. I wanted the story.
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