Aleutian Island Expedition - Part 2

This is the second installment of a three part piece. For the first installment, click here or to jump to the end click here

04 June: Baby Islands and Unalaska, in the Krenitzin and Fox Islands:

The Baby Islands lie just west of the northern end of the Umnak Channel and are continually swept by strong currents producing tide rips and whirl pools. Again we saw immense numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters (in the 100,000's) and the churning water was covered by huge rafts of Tufted Puffins (many thousands) mixed with smaller numbers of Crested Auklets and Ancient Murrelets. This has traditionally been one of the few accessible locations to see Whiskered Auklets in North America, and from the ship we had brief glimpses of several of these tiny auklets as they fished frenetically in the turbulent water. The birds would dive several times in quick succession, looking around nervously with outstretched necks when on the surface, and often fluttering away to another patch of upwelling water. The white plumes (or whiskers) were hard to see at any distance. It proved very difficult to get good views of the Whiskered Auklets from the Zodiac. They were readily flushed by the approaching boat and the rough water made it impossible to use a scope. Amongst the alcids we also found a dense feeding flock of several thousand Short-tailed Shearwaters and were able to slowly drift right into the frenzy. The birds were eating small crustaceans and fish that teemed a foot or so below the surface, reaching them by making shallow dives with open wings. Those who remained on the ship had better views of Whiskered Auklets, seeing several hundred. In addition, Tony was also lucky enough to see another Yellow-billed Loon fly over the ship, calling loudly as it passed.

Dense rafts of Tufted Puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) mark the strong tidal rips that swirl around the Baby Islands in the Umnak Channel. Huge numbers of alcids and Short-tailed Shearwaters are attracted to these turbulent waters. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.

Steaming away from the Baby Islands, we passed through immense rafts of alcids composed mostly of the smaller species as well as big numbers of Red Phalaropes. Although many of the auklets were unidentifiable in the heavily overcast conditions, it appeared that the majority were probably Whiskered Auklets, numbering in the hundreds if not thousands, indicating that this a relatively abundant species within a very restricted marine habitat. Scoping through the rafts of small alcids, we picked up on a single Dovekie, an uncommon bird this far south.

A splendid Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) in breeding condition. Common throughout the Aleutians, tens of thousands were present in the Umnak Channel. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.
The afternoon was spent at the historic fishing port of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. This remote settlement has become an extremely important home port for the fishing industry and has a resident population of around 4000. Birding around town produced displaying Common Snipe (a.k.a. Wilson's Snipe) in marshy areas, a pair of Common Redpolls, a bird table covered in Gray-crowned Rosyfinch, an American Dipper on a fast flowing stream and a pair of Rock Ptarmigan on a slope above town. The town's active landfill produced a mind-boggling spectacle of several hundred immature and adult Bald Eagles and a similar number of Northern Ravens waiting patiently in the light rain for fresh loads of trash.

Bald Eagles of various ages wait for the next trash delivery at the Unalaska 'eagle sanctuary'. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.

Dutch Harbor (Unalaska) can be reached by air or ferry. For a list of useful contact details and information on vehicle rentals click here.

Laysan Albatrosses appeared almost as soon as we had pulled out of Dutch Harbor and by the time we retired to bed for a few precious hours sleep we had logged at least 67 birds as well as four Black-footed Albatrosses and good numbers of Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters and Fork-tailed Storm-petrel. Just before dusk, as we were approaching a remote islet (name?), we saw a total of thirteen Red-legged Kittiwakes flying in loose association with small groups of Black-Legged Kittiwakes. Readily picked out by their darker mantle, the Red-legs also appeared shorter billed and with a deeper tail fork.

05 June: Umnak and Chagulak, in the Fox Islands:

In the morning we reached Umnak, an island famous for its active Okmok Volcano. Umnak has a small native Aleut or as they prefer to call themselves, Unangan population who have kept cattle on the island, a leftover from the first Russian explorers. We encountered one bull that seemed to take exception to birdwatchers on his island, and we were forced back down onto the beach as he came bellowing and snorting after us! The boggy cow pasture produced Aleutian Green-winged Teal and Least Sandpiper, while the steep but crumbling sandstone cliffs hosted several Winter Wrens, Snow Buntings, Fox and Song Sparrows and Gray-crowned Rosyfinches, as well as nesting Bald Eagles. Probably the highlight was a mid-sized Gray Whale that cruised close in shore.

We were at sea for most of the rest of the day and again had very impressive numbers of seabirds; including at least 82 Laysan Albatrosses and on one patch of highly disturbed water (52.37.59N, 169.51.26W), we noted a number of feeding Whiskered Auklets. The steady concentrations of seabirds attracted predators and we noticed a very dark adult Peregrine a good distance from the nearest land, stripping the meat off a mid-sized alcid whilst on the wing. Twice during the afternoon a group of 5 Aleutian Canada Geese passed over the ship. These appeared slightly smaller than the Canada Geese in Anchorage with a clear white neck collar at the boundary of the brown and black. Like us the geese seemed to be heading for Chagulak, a striking volcanic cone rising out of the ocean.

Like spectators in a sports arena, Thick-billed Murres (Uria lomvia) and Black-legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) crowded the steeper cliffs on Chagulak, while millions of Northern Fulmars occupied the upper, grassier parts of the volcanic cone. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.

Chagulak is a quite incredible place. As we approached within ten to twenty miles of the island, we noticed a steady increase in the numbers of Northern Fulmars, and once we were within a few miles of the rock, the sea was literally covered with a dense blanket of chocolate-brown fulmars. The island itself appeared to be shrouded in dark clouds or perhaps steam rising from an active volcanic cone but we soon realized that these clouds were in fact immense swirling masses of fulmars! There must literally have been several million birds. We boarded Zodiacs and motored around the base. Again the sky was dark with the swirling mass of birds above us. The more vertical cliffs were covered in dense legions of Thick-billed Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes. As we maneuvered the Zodiac slowly through the rafts of feeding Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes Andy spotted a first summer Common Black-headed Gull feeding with a group of Kittiwakes. Some of the zodiac groups had seen a pod of Orca moving past the island and we later caught up with them in the ship.

06 June: Atka in the Andreanof Islands:

A group of us spent several hours in a light but chilling rain cruising amongst the rocky islets that filled Atka Bay. We had good but distant views of several pairs of Kittlitz's Murrelets (~25 in all) in various stages of molt towards alternate plumage; very close views of a number of Ancient Murrelets; and a fair number of rather flighty (probably gun shy?) Common Eiders. We found little else of note except a Rock Ptarmigan, and a molting Arctic Fox on the weed strewn shoreline.

Study of an Ancient Murrlet (Synthliboramphus antiquus) feeding in a quite inlet in Atka Bay, Andreanof Islands. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.

During a long afternoon/evening seawatch, we had Laysan Albatrosses almost constantly in sight (conservatively estimated at 40 individuals, as several were clearly following the ship), 3 Black-footed Albatross, and a single Mottled Petrel, that seemed to have used a catapult to rise off the ocean and zing past the ship. Unlike most other Pterodroma, the Mottled Petrel flew a relatively straight course without arching, a typical feature of the species according to Dick who had already seen the species a few months earlier (in Antarctica). The dark 'M' across the upper surface of the wings and dark belly patch were both readily apparent. At 9:15 pm (52.25.25 N, 174.38.10 W) we spotted a pod of at least 10 Baird's Beaked Whales moving as a tight pack. These large beaked whales are restricted to the northern Pacific arc and were new to almost all of us. Their identification was based on the shape of the rather shark-like dorsal fin, the long bill and domed forehead with a clear indentation at the 'nape'.

07 June: Adak in the Andreanof Islands:

The name Adak comes from the Aleut word adaq meaning 'father'. Adak had undergone a major change in the months leading up to our brief visit. Once a major US military airbase, the end of the Cold War and subsequent military cutbacks resulted in the recent closing of the newly expanded base, shrinking the human population of the island from more than 6000 to around 300. As a result, we had the the feeling of a being in a ghost town! Things may soon change however as there are plans to bring in foreign fish processing companies and exploit Adak's unique location mid-way between North America and Asia for merchant shipping. During our short stay on the island we boarded a bus and checked various points along the shore of Clam Lagoon, producing good numbers of both Aleutian and Arctic Terns, many Aleutian Green-winged Teal, two Rock Ptarmigan, a Dunlin and a single female Red-necked Phalarope. The lagoon has hosted many rare shorebirds in the past but the tide was not ideal during our stay and there was no evidence of any recent migration. Offshore we noted pairs of both White-winged and Black Scoter.

Leaving Adak, we passed immense breeding colonies of Least Auklets and the choppy ocean was covered in large rafts of Least Auklets mixed with smaller numbers of Parakeet and Crested Auklets. We had ample opportunity to compare these species in flight as groups of birds passed parallel with the ship and then cut across bow. During our evening seawatch, we recorded most of the now usual pelagic species (including 30 Laysan Albatross, 2 Mottled Petrels, several Red-legged Kittiwake, dark phase Parasitic Jaeger) as well as our first Leach's Strom-petrel.

08 June: Segula and Kiska in the Rat Islands:

Kiska was occupied by the Japanese during World War II, until it was abandoned in July 1943 and reoccupied by US forces. Military debris lies everywhere including the hulks of sunken merchant ships. We were extremely nervous about unexploded munitions, and for a change tried to look where we were stepping. Despite extensive searching, we couldn't come up with anything more special than a fly over Short-eared Owl, two Rock Ptarmigans, the local Song Sparrow and more good views of Lapland Longspurs. Nearing the end of shore time, Andy and I decided to check a shallow lagoon that lay just around the cove, in front of a rusting bow section of a Japanese merchant ship. A tight flock of 151 Harlequin Ducks bobbed offshore. Clambering across the boulder strewn beach, we were aggressively mobbed by a pair of Peregrines that evidently had a nest on the overlooking cliff. For safety, we held my telescope and extended tripod over our heads. In a quick check of the shallow lagoon we found two male and one female Eurasian Wigeon among the Mallards and Aleutian Green-winged Teal.

The Kiska volcanic cone. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©.

Leaving Kiska we made the long jump towards the Near Islands, sometimes through very the deep water of the inter-island trenches. As the depth meter plunged (10:20 am, 52.00.47 N, 177.53.32 E, depth 550 m) we came upon two adult Sperm Whales (most probably males) lounging on the surface reoxygenating after their long dives. The Captain slowed the ship carefully so that we could study these immense predators. The whales rested on the surface for a good ten minutes before gracefully raising their broad tail flukes straight up into the air and slipping silently back towards the abyssal depths. Although we passed the famous seabird/vagrant island of Buldir we had to steer well clear because of the breeding Steller's Sealion. Again we recorded small numbers of Red-legged Kittiwakes moving out to their feeding grounds as well as more Leach's Storm-petrel and other pelagics.

09 June: Attu in the Near Islands:

Shortly after dawn we steamed into Massacre Bay on the southeastern corner of Attu Island. Like Kiska, Attu was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and was recaptured in a very bloody conflict that cost the lives of more than 3000 men. A detailed history can be found here. Everyone seemed particularly tense this morning as we gazed at the rugged snow-covered mountains that hugged the rocky and somewhat foreboding bay. We had a mere six hours ashore and there was a lot of ground to cover. Our intelligence reports seemed to indicate that the tail end of the spring had been poor, with few migrants on the island. However, the long staying male Spectacled Eider had been present all spring and was a sought after bird for many of us. The bird apparently ranged all the way between the mouth of the Peaceful River and Alexi Point several miles to the east. John and Dick planned to first check the Peaceful River/Barbara Point area and then if necessary take a long Zodiac ride out to Alexi Point. Andy and I opted instead to concentrate on a frantic search of the complex and boggy terrain between the airstrip and the shore, as well as a dash around the cove and the small ponds on Murder Point in the hope of picking up some new shorebirds or passerines.

Quickly John picked out a superb adult Emporer Goose on the small islet off Barbara Point (marked with a distinctive wooden log). Because all the eider appeared to be Common Eider, John and Dick headed back to the landing site where their private ('stretch') zodiac awaited. Scampering around the cove, Andy and I found a total of seven Eurasian Wigeon, numerous Rock Sandpipers, Longspurs, Snow Buntings and small parties of Aleutian Terns overhead. The enormous local Song Sparrows (maxima) was fairly common and could be seen singing from the tops of various man-made structures. A single female Bufflehead cruised around in the cove and two small groups (16 and 2) of Aleutian Canada Goose passed overhead, their calls seeming higher pitched than in the larger more familiar races.

Near Barbara Point we met up again with John and Dick who had endured a long, uncomfortable and unsuccessful search of the far side of the bay. Time was up and they were heading back to the landing site. I glanced through the scope at the small islet for one last look at the Emperor Goose and for a split second saw a male eider with green on the head and a large 'goggle' eye. Wait a second, that was the SPECTACLED EIDER!!! Looking back the bird was gone but I was sure that it had just moved around behind the rock. I ran down the track to catch the others whilst Andy searched for the bird. For a few anxious moments there was nothing. Had I hallucinated?? Was the lack of sleep finally catching up on me?? Suddenly as a wave swept back, the fantastic breeding plumaged male Spectacled Eider was dragged out of a little nook in the rock and into view. We watched it for a few wonderful minutes as it paddled along in front of the island and clambered out onto the weedy rocks. Sadly our shore time was now very much up, and we had to run back to the final Zodiac lest we be marooned upon this desolate island.

We sailed along the southern edge of Attu, a view of the rugged 20 mile long island few birders probably ever get. We could only wonder about the potential of the inaccessible western end (Cape Wrangle, at 172 degrees, 27 minutes east is the western most point of North America), especially around the large lake at the head of Etienne Bay. Soon after passing the island we reentered deep water. This stretch (245 nautical miles total) proved very productive for Mottled Petrels, with an awesome 51 individuals (minimum) including 35 in US waters. Many of the birds were resting on the water, taking flight just ahead of the ship. Although most were in one's, two's or three's, on one occasion we flushed a group of eight. We also noted a single Humpback Whale (21:58 pm 53.34.05 N, 170.26.86 E). As we crossed the date line at around 2300, we formally moved into a new faunal region, the Eastern Palearctic, and to celebrate this fact switched to British nomenclature so that Thick-billed Murres became Brunnich's Guillemots and so on. As the twilight descended we had managed to rack up quite an impressive a Palearctic seabird list. After dark we watched for seabirds using the ships powerful spotlights. Seabirds seemed even commoner in the dark including a few more Mottled Petrel and Fork-tailed Storm-petrel.

For more information about Attu, including detailed accounts of recent spring migrations, check out the excellent Attour Inc. web site. The US Coastguard plans to close its Attu base soon and it may become much harder to visit this remotest corner of North America. You can read more about the planned closures here.

10 June: Lost because of crossing the International Dateline backwards!

Read on for Eastern Palearctic exotics such as Steller's Sea Eagle and Swinhoe's Rufous-tailed Robin.......

For the third and final installment (Bering Island and the Kamchatka Peninsula), click here.
To go back to the first installment (Anchorage to Unalaska), click here

Page and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999 All rights reserved.
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