Stories from Alaska

  • Blog Post by: Jim Williams
  • March 5, 2013 - 11:35 AM

Birding is a little slow right now, so ....

If you saw the birding movie “The Big Year” perhaps you recall reference to Attu Island. Attu sits at the end of the Aleutian chain, 1,500 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, 280 miles from Russia. Average temp on Attu year-round is 39 degrees. It rains or snows almost 200 days a year. Clear days can be counted on your fingers. It’s always windy.

Birders who went to Attu when access was easier than it is today prayed for wind from the west. Attu is perfectly positioned to capture Asian bird species migrating up the Japanese or Russian coasts, exotic birds blown way off course if the wind is right.

Back in the day, if you were collecting North American bird sightings to build a significant year or life list, Attu was almost a must. There you could see bird species that rarely if ever made it to the rest of the continent. I say “was” because the yearly trips that offered birders two or three spring weeks each year were discontinued several years ago. The cost then was about $5,000 for three weeks, plus your airfare to Anchorage.

You flew to Attu in those days, landing at a Coast Guard station on the island. The station, which provided navigation information for ships and planes, closed 13 years ago. Airstrip maintenance ceased. Trips continue, but birders arrive by luxury boat now, the cost near $8,000 from Anchorage. You eat and sleep aboard the boat, warm and dry. That, incidentally, significantly reduces the romance of the visit. Hardship always makes a story better.

Looking through a drawer filled with birding checklists recently, I found a set of small notebooks I used during my serious birding-travel days. The one I opened began with Attu comments. Paging through, it occurred to me that a friend and I and a few other individuals hold a particular Attu record. I’m pretty certain it’s not been broken because no one would break that record with intent. I think I hold an individual record, again a record no one would seek.

I’d like to tell you about Attu. It’s an interesting place, birds just one of several reasons it made a fascinating visit. Every now and then I’ll continue this story.

Below, Attu Island mountains across Massacre Bay.




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