Monday, December 9, 2013


ADAK: days 3-5

"Small dark alcid!"

It's Saturday morning, day 3, and John Puschock is telling me to look in his scope. And in the middle, bobbing up and down on the bumpy water of Kuluk Bay is indeed a small dark alcid. It's tiny - and entirely black. Scrunching up my eyes, trying to wring more detail out of the bird, I can see a hint of a crest.

"Looks good!"

After sea-watching yesterday and not seeing any Whiskered Auklets, I wasn't feeling optimistic. At all. Whiskered Auklets spend their entire year in the Central Aleutians. They like the narrow passes between islands, where they can be found in large feeding groups. At 7-3/4 inches long, they're one of our smallest seabirds and are tough to spot. They're usually only seen from a boat. We don't have a boat, hence the pessimism and the eye-scrunching from shore.

Sea-watching. Kuluk Bay, Adak.

"There's another!"

At this range, it's hard to separate Whiskered from the similar, though larger, Crested Auklet. We're too far to see the white whiskers on the face. Instead, we're looking for the bright white lower belly, a distinctive field mark of the Whiskered Auklet. As well as the Whooper Swans, this is the other bird that lured me to Adak. As I'm thinking of John Vanderpoel's big year, and how he saw this bird in Kuluk Bay in 2011, the tiny black dot in my scope starts running through the water, eventually clearing the surface and lifting up. The buzzy whirring wings bring it directly toward us. It banks, and flops down back into the waves. But not before showing off its bright white belly. Whiskered Auklet! Over the next hour, we spot a few more auklets, and John and I both watch as a close bird dives, again showing off its white belly. Well, that was a lot easier than I'd expected!

We leave the expanse of Kuluk Bay for a quick stop at the jetty, south of town. It's calmer here, which affords some great views of a couple of other alcid species:

Crested Auklet - note the single white streak on the face and the bushy crest. 

Pigeon Guillemot. At this time of year they swap their 
mostly black breeding plumage for mostly white winter plumage.

With our two targets nailed down, we'll have more time to spend looking for rare ducks (Smew, Spot-billed, etc) and to see if anything is coming into the feeders. Unfortunately, it also gives us more time to talk about the Zombie Apocalypse. No, sadly that's not the local hoppy brew served at the ASBAG (least you forget - the Aleutian Sports Bar And Grill.) Rather, an idea for luring tourists here: the hundreds of abandoned houses would make for a great backdrop to a Zombie weekend. We could hire actors to pretend to be zombies and scare the hell out of willing horror junkies. (And no - we did not suggest that some of the locals could play the zombie roles without any makeup or training.) As we're driving round the ghost town that is Adak, it really is pretty spooky...

Ptarmaggedon? Or just some innocent ptarmigans following us around?

Pet Cemetery. 

What was that? I'm thrown back in my seat as the driver stamps on the brakes. Wasn't that...wait, didn't I just see a...? But that's impossible. We were joking about the whole zombie thing, right? Right?

We're standing outside a yellow buiding. Well, the wall would be yellow if it hadn't been completely blown off, exposing a doll's house of rooms beyond. The wind is whistling through exposed beams, and a light fixture is slowing swinging back and forth. Back and forth. There's a rattling sound coming from the floor. We turn to look at each other, wondering if it's too late to make a dash for the car. And then the floor slowly opens up. It's too late - we're frozen in fear as an undead being emerges from the rubble, right in front of us...

Zombie Apocalypse Now - here's one coming up through the floor!!!

It's an ugly creature, violently listing from side to side. And then it turns to face us...

Even scarier from the front!

Oh, wait. That's John. Always did have problems separating John from the undead...Still - the zombie theme park is a pretty good idea. Where else can you see rare alcids and the undead?

OK, I hear you - enough with the Zombie stuff already. Back to the birds... 

One of the most beautiful birds I've seen this entire big year winters here in Adak. It's a small goose, with an unusual patterning. The Emperor Goose breeds in coastal Alaska and winters on the rocky shores of the Aleutians.

Emperor Goose - candidate for most beautiful bird of my Big Year.
(Two young on left, adults on right)

Notice the separation of colors on the neck - white at the back, dark on the front. 
The latter extends to the lower mandible on the bill, which is also dark. 
The silvery-gray edging to the body creates a spectacular scaly effect.

A typical day on Adak is spent driving around the freshwater lakes and ponds looking for ducks, and around the large Clam Lagoon for shorebirds and geese. After our initial sighting of Whooper Swans on Haven Lake on Friday, we see these birds every day for the rest of our trip  - and even once flying over town, honking loudly, the sound after which they're named. We also keep an eye on the feeders and bird seed...

Adak National Forest. 
Bird free during our trip despite copious amounts of bird seed.

I brought one hanging feeder with us, which we placed in a lonely tree sheltered by a decaying brick building.

As we're driving back to check this on Saturday afternoon, I'm suddenly forced back in my seat as John steps on the gas. No zombie apocalypse this time. He must have seen something on the feeder. But why are we driving so quickly? What did John see?

"Accipiter" he shouts, keeping his eyes laser-focussed on the sky ahead. "But there *are* no accipiters here. This could be..."

We pull up to the feeder and spot a large bird rounding the building. We jump out of the car. It's immediately obvious this bird is an accipiter (a hawk with large rounded wings and straight barred tail.) It's flapping as it's gaining height and putting distance between us. And it has a bird in its talons - probably a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, the most common visitor to the seed we've put out. We watch as it flees towards the edge of the harbor, finally disappearing behind a warehouse. It does not emerge from the other side.

Accipiter - with prey. Photos by John Puschock.

The size of the bird seems right for Sharp-shinned Hawk or possibly Cooper's Hawk, but not for Goshawk (which would be considerably larger and heavier in build.) But the tail seemed too long for Sharp-shinned or Cooper's. The proportions seemed off for an American accipiter. As we rush over to investigate the other side of the warehouse, we're acutely aware that we're chasing history - what could be the first record of Eurasian Sparrowhawk. Not just for Adak, or Alaska, but for North America. (There are two or three sight reports from Attu, at the far western end of the Aleutian chain - but no definitive accepted records.)

As we round the corner of the warehouse, Jay spots it. "It's flying away!" We lose the bird. Damn! And as we're about to get back in the car, John spots the bird above us - gaining altitude. As John and Jay are snapping away, I'm again aware of the long tail on this perfectly-silhouetted raptor. And the flight style - rapid wingbeats, alternating with glides. The bird climbs higher and higher, eventually drifting off towards the abandoned quarry. We do not relocate the bird that evening. 

Silhouette of accipiter - photo by Jay Lehman

Do we have enough documentation to convince a rarity committee? John and Jay have photos (see here for full set.) Most are backlit. We're hoping that we can find the bird again the next day - Sunday - our final day on the island. It's exciting seeing a potential first for the ABA (I've already seen two this year: Rufous-necked Wood-rail and Common Redstart) but there's a selfish part of me that wishes it were something more common / more tickable, like Eurasian Kestrel or Hobby - something easier to identify without the added scrutiny of a first record. Unfortunately, you don't get much choice when it comes to random rare birds!

I've written a lot about birds, and zombies, but what about where we're living? What's it like?
Well, we've been staying in a lovely 2-bedroom house with a well-equipped kitchen, laundry, TV, full bathroom. Compared to the Pribilofs this is luxury indeed. There's only one problem - the first evening some idiot dufus (who's apparently doing some kind of accidental big year - whatever the hell that is) managed to block the toilet. Half an hour of violent plunger action not only failed to unblock the toilet, but made the problem worse: the contents of the toilet disappeared down one drain only to pop up out of another - the bath. 

"Guys, we have a problem."

The good news was that we had a second toilet (but not shower.) The bad news - it soon transpired that this toilet was also blocked. The bath and both toilets clearly shared the same blocked drain. (Which I have to stress was having blockage issues *before* we arrived.) And thus began our regular early morning trips in the dark to the Mexican restaurant to use their outside bathroom - the one where the light doesn't work, so you not only need a flash light, but the headlights of the car illuminating you through the tiny window.

Our Adak home.

We were ever vigilant in our search for bathrooms during the day. Including, no less, at the Aleutian Sports Bar And Grill...

Seems like the ASBAG has the same problem. And no - I did not break this one.
(And no - they don't sell ASBAGs for this purpose...)

Umm...that's probably enough of that. More than enough. Moving swiftly on...

We returned to the feeder the next morning, but found only feeding Gray-crowned Rosy-finches.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.
The large griseonucha subspecies found in the Aleutians

We checked the other bird seed locations. At one, we saw the flash of a white rump - Brambling! A rare Asian finch - and a life bird for Bill. For Jay and I, this had become a somewhat regular addition on our Alaska trips this year. We'd even seen one in Vancouver, BC. We edged up for better views when a large bird of prey shot out from behind a building seemingly plotting a direct course for the feeding birds. The Sparrowhawk! It immediately spotted us, banked and flew off. We lost it behind the abandoned houses. This time, we did not catch up with it, and was the last time we were to see the bird. We would have to make do with the photos from the previous day. The surprise sortie did however give us some closer views of the bird. I could clearly see (brown) barring on the underside - very different from the vertical streaking on American accipiters. Again, the tail was noticeably long. 

The reason that we had more time to search for the Sparrowhawk that final evening was because our plane was delayed. Apparently it had left Anchorage, and then turned round. "Mechanical issues." As the departure time kept creeping back later and later, I was worried that I'd miss my connecting flight out of Anchorage that night. But at least the flight wasn't cancelled. When that happens, they usually don't have a replacement flight - you just wait for the next scheduled flight - which, with only 2 flights a week to Adak, would be 4 days away. That happened to John Vanderpoel in his big year. He was out here for a week.


We were speechles. Another 4 days on Adak! Without a shower! Or toilet! More evenings in the ASBAG! It was a somber scene in the airport. An airport with somewhat unorthodox facilities...

Abandoned foosball table. Adak airport.
(apparently the locals don't have the balls to play it anymore)

Although maybe this (the *airport*) wasn't the safest place to hang out...

"Hmm. Mr Gun doesn't like cancellations. 
Mr Gun would like the flight rescheduled for tomorrow. Wouldn't you, Gunny?"

We were lucky. We found out that Alaska Airlines were putting on another flight the next morning. (Thank you, Gunny!) We weren't stuck here - and did manage to get out. 

Leaving Adak. 

As we were climbing into the plane the next morning, stealing a last glimpse at the mountainous tundra, I reflected on what a successful and fun trip this had been. I was sad to leave. I'd seen some amazing birds here - two of which were new for the year, as well as a potential first for the ABA that was still out there. And my first ever Zombie! But seeing the Aleutians was special. Being at the edge of America on these wind-swept islands was an incredible experience. And as I've noted previously, one of the great things about a big year is spending time with fellow birders. I'm so happy I got to spend more time with fellow Big Year birder and friend Jay Lehman, who I've really enjoyed getting to know this year. (Although I still don't care for his puns - but he'd probably tell me that I'm too Jay-ded...) And it was great meeting Bill Sain from Texas - who got some pretty good life birds here. And a big thanks for John Puschock for making this trip possible. John runs trips throughout Alaska (Zugunruhe Tours) - he's a master of logistics, bird finding, oddball humor and he makes the best quesadillas I've had all year. 

Next year: Zombie apocalypse, anyone?

Flying off into the sunset
+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 742 + 3 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart, Eurasian Sparrowhawk)

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1+1): Whiskered Auklet, Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Provisional)


  1. Is that man with the guns Jeremy Usborne?

  2. No!!! Sadly not.

    He was one of the (very) many hunters. Looking for caribou. And probably some snack-sized Smew too...

    First time I've ever seen a passenger take out their gun *in* an airport! Welcome to Alaska!

    - Neil

  3. Get shots of the whiskered auklet!

  4. Rustic Bunting in Homer Alaska!!

  5. RUBU might mean another trip needed to AK. It's been seen for the last 5 days. I notice you have flown enough with Alaska Airlines to have a free flight.