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.
Attu was the site of the only World War II battles fought in North America. U.S. troops were stationed on the island. Japanese troops attacked. We saw many battle relics during our visit. On the beach in front of our quarters troops had abandoned construction vehicles and equipment. These were rusty monuments. Where the tide touched, barnacles covered everything. Kelp fronds were woven into wheel spokes (this was military equipment from the 1930s). Rusty chains crawled out of the sand. We saw fox holes dug into the tundra. We found a metal box that once held radio equipment. It was bullet scarred. Back in the mountains, a long hike if we wanted to take it, was the remains of a Japanese fight plane that had crashed. There was a monument. Visitors came from Japan to pay homage.
Mike and I skipped the hike. We did our assigned chores, then went birding. My job that day was to open cans of sugar that had been stored for those two years and pound chunks into sprinkle condition.
The only vehicles on the island belonged to the Coast Guard, trucks very off limits to us. Birders walked or used bicycles. Dozens of bikes were pulled from a storage room upon arrival. All looked to have garage-sale provenance. The Attu birding trips had a hierarchy. Veterans, birders returning for the umpteenth time, had preference. They got better rooms and certainly better bicycles. Some of the primo places to look for and find birds, however, were miles away. Any bike was good.
We birded in small groups, each with an experienced Attu birder as guide. We fanned out. The guides had the radios that were spitting static into the day room where the man played cards and those birders waited for their moment. The only paved surface on the island was the runway. We walked or biked on muddy, rocky paths. You had to watch for the streams that ran down the hillsides to the sea, melt water from ice and snow in the mountains above, water you could drink. The streams cut narrowly through the tundra, channels a foot wide and four feet deep. A misstep was ugly.
To be continued.
So, I was talking about a trip to Attu, birding at the end of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Let's get back to that for a moment. My friend Mike and I were spending a month in Alaska, the trip to Attu to cover one week. Mike and I toured the Anchorage area for a couple of days, then went to bed with a morning flight to Attu in our dreams. This is what happened. Previous chapters are on file here.
We were to leave Anchorage for Attu on a Monday. Thirty-two of us dragged our luggage into the hotel ballroom at 4:30 that morning for a departure meeting. Larry Balch, host and leader, looked unhappy as he walked to the front of the room. Attu was covered with fog. We would not fly that day. Worse, our plane was booked for another use on Tuesday, so we wouldn’t fly then either. We would bird day-trip venues in and around Anchorage.
So, we drove in vans Monday and Tuesday, birding here and there. It wasn’t bad. It also wasn’t Attu. Tuesday night we learned that our plane was broken. Broken. We couldn’t leave on Wednesday. Thursday was another no-go. More fog. That meant we had three days left of this seven-day trip. Booking for a stay of two or three weeks began to look like a good idea.
Larry gathered all of us Thursday evening to offer a deal. We could drop out then, forego the possibility of flying on Friday, our last chance. He would refund a thousand dollars. No thanks. Mike and I made Plan B. We would go back to Nome if we couldn’t go to Attu.
We could go to Attu. Thursday morning we boarded the plane, happy birders. My notes say we were giddy.
The first bird I saw as I put boot down on the Attu runway was a Lapland Longspur. Then, in order, a raven, a Glaucous-winged Gull, and some Mallards. I’d come a long way for Mallards. Attu has ordinary birds as well as extraordinary birds. It was a strange day there, bright, sunny, warm, an aberration the Coast Guardsmen enjoyed. The strange weather somewhat hindered birding because the heat waves coming off rocks and gravel made spotting scope use almost impossible.; the distortion was too much. It was very strange. The weather returned to wet, cold normal the next day.
The photo below shows our Attu quarters, the old Coast Guard building. The bikes will be explained as we finish the story, spring permitting.
It's been two weeks since I last posted about my 1996 trip to the island of Attu, at the end of the Aleutian Islands. My friend Mike and I were spending a month birding various parts of Alaska. We had planned to spend week three on Attu with other customers of the tour company Attour. The usual Attu trip was three weeks for $5,000. We bought into a one-week special for $2,000. We got a discount rate because we agreed to spend half of each day working with the cleanup crew trying to make the accommodations habitable. Housing was in a rotting concrete building once used by the Coast Guard. Accommodations were not a consideration, however. The reason people went to Attu was wonderful birds, birds blown off course by the strong storms from the west. Migrants heading for Japan or Russia got blown onto Attu. If you were building a North American birding life list, Attu was pretty important. The trip began in Anchorage. Mike and I arrived there two days ahead of time, and were killing time until departure
The most recent previous post was on April 4. All six earlier chapters can be found by paging back on the blog. In chapter six, Mike and I were driving in and around Anchorage, trying to find a wild place.
Espresso and lawn mowers aside, Alaska is of course a vast wilderness, an easy place to die. At our first breakfast in Anchorage we read the morning newspaper. The day before, celebrating his high school graduation, a young man tried to swim across a city lake. Some lakes still held ice. Hypothermia got him. A plane and its pilot had gone missing. A friend took his plane out over the mountains to join the search. Neither had been seen again, and the search had been stopped. On Mt. McKinley, climbing season was open. Three climbers from Japan had died the day of our arrival. Roped together, one man slipped. All three slid down something called the Oriental Chute. It was named for a previous mishap. A father and son took a fatal slide of 2,000 feet. The newspaper story said dental records were needed to tell one body from the other.
We never came close to a deadly situation. Up around Nome, earlier in the trip, people told us to watch for bears when we birded willow thickets. Carry a bell, they said, or talk to yourself; let the bears know where you are. Bears don't like surprises, they told us. Oh, I did fall asleep at the wheel of an old Chevy Suburban driving back to Nome after some vigorous tundra birding. I drove off the Kougarok Road into a boulder field, the only place in 70 miles where there were no deep ditches. Bounced awake, with passengers shouting, I drove back onto the road without even slowing down. Dumb luck.
(From Nome, you drive 84 miles up the Kougarok Road to a landmark bulge of tundra called Coffee Dome to look for Bristled-thighed Curlews. That’s another story I’ll share sometime.)
There’s a wonderful book titled “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska,” by Colleen Mondor. The Hennepin County library has three copies. It and John McPhee’s book “Coming into the Country” are my Alaska favorites.
To be continued.
Whooping Cranes are back on their Wisconsin nesting grounds. As of April 3, 84 cranes were confirmed arrivals in central Wisconsin. The cranes are part of the reintroduction project centered at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) about two hours east of our Wisconsin border.
Noteworthy is the return of two chicks wild-hatched in Wisconsin last year. They migrated with their parents to wintering grounds in southern Indiana last fall, and now have returned. This marks the first complete migration cycle for wild Wisconsin chicks.
Wild-hatched means they were raised by their crane parents with no human assistance. The flock has been built with birds hand-raised and tended by humans through their initial fall migration.
The crane project is managed by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing the birds to eastern North America. Decades ago this species was extirpated from this part of the continent.
Cranes from this flock sometimes are seen in Minnesota, but I know of no such reports this spring. WCEP asks anyone who encounters a Whooping Crane in the wild to give them the respect and distance they need. Observers should not approach birds on foot within 200 yards. Observers should remain in their vehicle, and no closer in the vehicle than 100 yards. Observers should remain concealed and not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Observers should not trespass on private property in an attempt to view or photograph the cranes.
Whooping Cranes sometimes can be seen at Necedah NWR. Beginning in 2011, cranes also were released at Wisconsin’s White River Marsh State Wildlife Area. These photos of adult Whoopoing Cranes was taken at Necedah in October 2010. Attached to the birds’ legs are radio transmitters that allow the birds to be tracked. In the lower photo a Sandhill Crane is in the foreground.
Complete information on this project can be found at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org/technicaldatabase/index.html
My friend Mike and I got to Anchorage two days ahead of the Attu schedule to do some birding on our own. We rented a car.
There aren’t many people in Alaska, given the amount of land there, but they’re bunched up. Yes, some people live in the bush, accessible only by plane or boat or dogsled. Most residents get home by car, however. We kept trying to find a dirt road that didn’t sport a street-name sign. We kept trying to find a road not lined with little houses with men in front mowing the lawn and children in the back swinging. We wanted to get away from the sound of two-cycle gasoline engines, cars, airplanes, and the four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles that bounced around every corner. It could not be done. Nor could we escape the windrows of blown paper and plastic trash piled deep along highway fences. We couldn’t even escape the espresso coffee vendors. There was a drive-though espresso shop along the highway 100 miles north of Anchorage. Espresso and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were ubiquitous up there.
Mike said that so far Alaska had been like going to the zoo and expecting to see wild animals.
The problem, of course, was the romantic image of Alaska, the public-television image, those extraordinary photos in National Geographic. Alaska was best from the air, I found. Below me were those places the television and magazine photographers go. Below as you fly north or west from Anchorage are un-named mountains and glaciers, hours of them at 350 miles each hour. You push your forehead against the airplane window and wish this was a little single-engine plane carrying you down that valley, over there, that one, where no one had ever been before.
To be continued.
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