Aleutian Adventure

By John Puschock, owner of Zugunruhe Birding Tours

I’ve been following Neil Hayward’s big year for months. I knew he was doing quite well, but still, I was surprised as he entered December with a shot at breaking Sandy Komito’s record. When Komito got 748 species in 1998, it was a shock. He beat his own record by over twenty species, and left everyone in his dust. As the years went by, it seemed as though the record would be unbreakable, but then John Vanderpoel came close in 2011, finishing with 743. Vanderpoel started his big year with the intention of doing a big year. Hayward, on the other hand, entered 2013 with no plans for a big year. He just started well and decided to do what he called an “accidental” big year.

He and I had talked off and on for the past several months. As you may remember, he joined Travis and I in Barrow to see Ross’s Gulls. Since I had seen him last on a pelagic trip out of San Diego, he was on a roll, but he knew he was going to have to have that luck continue. He still needed Whiskered Auklet (because someone didn’t join my trip to Attu), which is only accessible at two places, Adak and Dutch Harbor, and he wasn’t having any luck finding a boat at Dutch Harbor. I told him that there was a chance he could get Whiskered Auklets from shore at Adak, plus Whooper Swans winter there. They’re not always visible from the road system, but at least there was a chance. I emailed the woman I rent a house from when I lead tours at Adak, and as luck would have it, her husband had seen a family group of swans the day before. The trip to Adak was on!

I’ve been leading tours to Adak for almost ten years, so I took the lead setting up the logistics. I also offered it as a tour through my company, Zugunruhe Birding Tours, and got a few more birders to join us: Bill Sain and Jay Lehman. Jay’s also doing a big year and was with Neil and I in Barrow. And since I knew that we would see some birds that Travis still needed for his big year, I got in touch with Leica’s David La Puma and Jeff Bouton to ask if he could join us. (And obviously, as you are reading this post on his blog, he could.)

I should give you some background on Adak. The settlement started as a military base during World War II. It was created as a staging area for attack on the Japanese on Attu and Kiska. After the war, the base was important during the Cold War, but the decision was made to shut it down in 1997. The military’s land was given to the local native corporation and a small town was created. The population shrunk from about 4000 to only 300, and since then it’s shrunk even further. There’s probably just 100 people left. Many structures were abandoned and now it looks like a ghost town. It still has regular jet service from Alaska Airlines, though only twice a week.

But before going to Adak, there was other birding business we all needed to attend to. A Dusky Thrush had returned to Anchorage for the third winter in a row. Normally, this bird is only seen during spring migration in the western Aleutians and occasionally the Bering Sea islands, such as St. Paul. Neil didn’t want to wait and headed up to Alaska early. He saw the Dusky Thrush and then flew on to Nome for McKay’s Bunting before we even arrived. On Wednesday, the day before we flew to Adak, Bill and I headed out with Scott Schuette from St. Paul Tours and Jay Lehman was birding with Alaska’s top state lister, Dave Sonneborn. Jay and Dave got an earlier start, and they called me while we were picking Scott up that they had located a flock of American Robins in the neighborhood where the Dusky Thrush had been seen. This was significant because the Dusky has been hanging out with Robins.

We hurried to join them, and as we were parking, Dave met us and said that Jay had just seen the bird around the corner. We caught up to him, but there was no Thrush to be seen. Jay said it flew off behind a house. We waited for it to come back out, but when it didn’t, we went over one more street. The main part of the Robin flock had moved. Jay, Bill, and I watched it for about five minutes, but when it still didn’t reappear, Jay decided to walk back to get Dave. As soon as he disappeared from view, the Dusky Thrush magically materialized in a birch tree 100 feet away. A lifer for Bill, Travis and I! The Dusky stuck around long enough for everyone to get back and see it.

Turnagain neighborhood, Anchorage

An unassuming place for an Asian vagrant. The Dusky Thrush appeared in the deciduous tree on the left.

Dusky Thrush

And there it is, the Dusky Thrush.

Afterward, he headed back to Dave’s house just a few blocks away to warm up. After regrouping, everyone except Jay (and Neil was flying back from a trip to Texas for American Flamingo at this point), hopped in Dave’s car and headed up to Arctic Valley outside of Anchorage. We were hoping for ptarmigan. No luck there, but we did see a Northern Goshawk and, new for Travis, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks.

Exploring Arctic Valley for ptarmigans

Exploring Arctic Valley for ptarmigans.

The following day we had a 2 PM flight to Adak. To kill time in the morning, we headed back for another look at the Dusky Thrush. We probably saw it flush from a tree shortly after arriving, but we couldn’t catch up with the Robin flock after that (despite several hours of looking), but Travis, Bill, and I all added another year bird: Boreal Chickadee.

Then it was off to the airport. The flight went smoothly and we had some fantastic views during the last 30 minutes of the flight. We had a few hours of light to work with, so we drove around the area where the swans had most recently been seen. Nothing. We also did not find a Smew on Smew Pond. It would’ve been a new one for both Travis and Neil.

a view form the plane of some of the islands east of Adak

A view from the plane of some of the islands east of Adak.

We retraced our route the next morning. This time we had more light but still didn’t turn up any swans or Smew. Onward to new territory.

We were cresting a hill and getting the first look at a “new” pond when both Neil (who was sitting behind me while I was driving) and I spotted some large white wings in flight and simultaneously shouted “Swans!” There below us on Haven Lake sat (or more precisely, swam) three swans, one adult and two immatures. All three were Whoopers. Year birds for all, and lifers for many.

Whooper Swans

Success!….Whooper Swans.

We soaked the scene in. Not only were there Whoopers, but the lake held a good number of Eurasian Wigeon and the Old World form of Green-winged Teal (which is a common resident of the island).

One target down, we drove on to Clam Lagoon. This is the main hotspot on the island, plus there are a few nearby ponds that have had Smew and some other Asian ducks in the past. No go on that, but we did get to enjoy some Emperor Geese, a common winter resident at the lagoon. From there we moved on to do some seawatching near Zeto Point. No Whiskered Auklets, but there were some distant murres and puffins.

Emperor Geese

Emperor Geese on Clam Lagoon.

With the swans in the bag, we started Day Two with a seawatch. We went to a spot close to town that has yielded small alcids in the past. It’s best early in the morning when the waves are usually smaller, key to spotting these small dark birds which stay pretty far from shore. The light was good that morning – overcast with just a little bit of backlighting, making small dark birds stand out against the brighter water – and it wasn’t long before we spotted a few small birds in flight. They were looking good for Whiskered Auklet, but at that distance, we couldn’t be sure with what we were seeing at first. We could make out a slight crest on some of them, but we wanted to be sure. So we waited, and eventually they dove, revealing a white lower belly, a key field mark separating them from Crested Auklet. Score another year bird for Travis and Neil.

seawatching

Seawatching.

At this point, we had the big year birders’ main targets, the birds we knew would be around. From here on out we were hoping to stumble upon something unexpected. There was still a chance for a Smew, though the last report I had of one was from September. Otherwise…well, we weren’t sure what we were looking for.

And then we found it. We were driving up to a tree on the south side of town. It’s growing next to an old administrative building.I probably should mention first that there are very few trees on the island, none naturally occurring. We put seed out next to a few in hopes of attracting a vagrant. It did, but not in the way we expected…When we were about 200 yards from the tree when a raptor suddenly flew out of it and away from us. I immediately pushed the accelerator down and the bird disappeared behind the building. The only diurnal raptors that are resident on the island are falcons (Peregrines and Gyrfalcons), and this didn’t look like a falcon. It looked like an accipiter, and I was pretty sure there were no records of accipiters from Adak. As we got to the end of the building, I tried to explain all this to everyone in the car and that this could potentially be a first North American record, perhaps Eurasian Sparrowhawk. And then there it was, circling around at the end of the building. I suspect it had perched on a window sill and had flushed when it saw us again. As I jumped out of the car, I said, “Don’t bother with binoculars if you have a camera. Get as many pictures as you can.”

The bird flew out over Sweeper Cove in front of us and then off to the right, carrying a bird in its talons and disappearing behind some buildings. Our feeder worked, unfortunately for its prey. We drove over and tried to sneak up on it, but Jay saw it flush again from the ground about 200 yards ahead of us. Again, we lost it as it flew behind the buildings, and we couldn’t tell where it went. We basically just stood there trying to figure out what to do. I thought it might be best if we drove about a half-mile to where I thought it had gone. Just as we were about to get back in the car, I spotted it again. This time it was flying fairly high. As we watched, it disappeared over a hill to the south. We followed but couldn’t refind it.

accipiter

The accipiter. Not gracing any covers anytime soon.

From what we could tell, it looked long-winged and long-tailed for an accipiter. It wasn’t large, but it did look bigger than a Sharp-shinned Hawk, particularly a male Sharp-shinned Hawk. When it was flying high, it’s flight style remind me most of Sharp-shinned Hawk. I wasn’t very familiar of what to look for to separate those two species, and our photos were not the best. They weren’t even mediocre. The bird was strongly backlit and it was hard to make anything out. This was going to be tough.

We spent the night poring over field guides and our photos and trying to figure out what strategy to follow the next day to get another look at it. It seemed it was indeed a Sparrowhawk, a species for which there have been a few reports from Attu, but it hadn’t never been photographed there and there were no specimens either. This indeed could be a first North American record, but with the photos we had, would it be enough to get the record accept? We wanted better photos. We decided to stake out the tree that we first saw it fly out the next morning. Perhaps it would roost there overnight. Sunrise came and went but no hawk. We took a look at some other trees and places where we had seed but came up empty-handed.

What to do? The hawk could be anywhere. We decided to bird as we would normally, but check out the areas we seeded throughout the day.

We would have to check in for the flight mid-afternoon, but when we went to drop off our luggage, we found out the flight would be delayed. The plane had taken off but was forced to turned around due to a mechanical problem. We’d get back to Anchorage later than planned, but we did have some more birding time at least. Time for another check of the feeders. We had two seeded areas in an abandoned residential area. First feeder: just some Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. (Don’t get me wrong. They’re great birds.) The second feeder was the same. I drove up a little closer, and then all of a sudden, the hawk popped out from behind a building a flew right in front of us, only about 70 feet away! As soon as it registered in my brain, I shouted “Sparrowhawk!” I could clearly see that the underparts were entirely barred and the bars were not rufous – it wasn’t an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk and immatures of all the ABA Area accipiter species are streaked on the underparts. It quickly turned away from us and disappeared behind another building (a recurring theme with this bird), but not before Travis was able to catch a quick glimpse of it. Jay and Bill jumped out of the car to explore on foot, and then Neil and I took off trying to catch up with it.

We failed to track it down, and as we were trying, I kept getting notifications on my phone that the flight was being delayed more and more. We drove back to the feeder where we had the latest sighting and a songbird with a white rump flew up into a tree. It was a Brambling. A lifer for Bill, but unfortunately not what we were looking for otherwise. More searching followed, and then another notification: The flight was canceled.

Brambling

Brambling. And another low quality photograph. What can I say? I wasn’t haven’t the best luck with photography on this trip.

A canceled flight at Adak is more of a big deal than other places. There are only two flights schedule per week. When a flight is canceled, it may not be rescheduled. We were afraid we were looking at a four-day wait for the next one. Sure, it would give us more chance to try to get better photographs of the hawk, but most everyone had other places to be. Our spirits weren’t high, but when we returned to the airport, we found out there would be a make-up flight the next morning. We were relieved, though I’ll admit I had mixed feelings.

We had a few minutes of daylight the next morning to bird. The Brambling was still there, but no hawk sighting. The flight back to Anchorage was uneventful, and we all said our good-byes at the airport. Most everyone was flying to the Lower 48. Travis and I were staying in Alaska for two more days. We were going to Homer to organize and do some work on the equipment I use on our Attu trips. Homer would hopefully have a few birds for Travis’s year list. We looked for Steller’s Eider but couldn’t find any. Northwestern Crow was the only year bird for him.

Common Raven

I found this Common Raven surveying its domain as I drove to Homer.

Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska

Overlooking Kachemak Bay, just west of Homer.