Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Something So Offending As You

The (charming) old pet cemetary on Adak Island.

It makes sense, in the long run, to get some basic facts down on the table here…so here we go…

The Aleutians are a long chain of volcanic islands, stitched along the Pacific Rim’s famed Ring Of Fire.  They stretch from all the way from just off the tip of the Alaska Peninsula all the way out to Attu Island, a distance of about a thousand miles.  In previous ice ages, when the seas were lower, the Aleutians acted as a land bridge connecting Russia and Alaska.  It’s thought that the New World came to be inhabited by people through this link.

A male White-winged Crossbill in Homer.  He made my eyes bleed.

They islands lie considerably south of the Arctic Circle, so it can get damn windy and cold, but the weather was definitely bearable (this does not apply in winter though).  At least, it was not much worse than the weather on top of Mt. Wrightson or Carr Peak in southeast Arizona.  There are no bears or moose on any of them (or Aurora Borealis, for that matter).  Caribou have been introduced to a couple, as have foxes and rats.  Foxes and rats can take huge tolls on nesting birds, so the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (my employer who I do not represent here in any way shape or form) have been actively attempting to remove them for a number of years now.  But the whole reason I’m up here at all are the millions of birds that use this area.  A vast array of seabirds nest here…..cormorants, gulls, kittiwakes, jaegers, auklets, murres, murrelets, puffins, storm-petrels…the list goes on and on.  The albatross and shearwaters that forage between the islands breed further south (Hawaii, New Zealand, etc.), and the many sandpipers and waterfowl that pass through during migration are on their way to/from Russia and Alaska.  Relatively few songbird species breed, but those that do (“Pacific” Wren, Song Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, Snow Bunting) seem to do well, as their only native predators in much of the chain are Peregrine Falcons and Common Ravens, who usually seem to be preoccupied with larger things.

Of course, one of the huge draws of the western Aleutians to birders is its proximity to RussiaOld World birds that are almost impossible to find in the rest of the United States can show up out here with regularity during migration.  So to a birder coming from the Lower 48, getting paid to live in the Western Aleutians is a dream come true  (scratch that….a birder’s wet dream come true…yeah, I went there) especially when you take into account that most of the birders who find their way to Attu pay an exorborant sum to do so.  Oh, and NO you cant see Russia from anywhere, goddamn it.

Ok.  Now you are all experts on the region.  

 Adak Island's Clam Lagoon.  Back in May, it was chock full of Kittlitz's Murrelets.

So all the way back in May, I got to spend a few days in Homer, which is advertised by a lot of people as being one of the best towns in Alaska (I can neither confirm or deny that). The refuge has its headquarters here though.  Some casual birding around town was productive.  Hello Trumpeter Swan.  It is nice to meet you.  Oh, hello there White-winged Crossbill.  It is nice to meet you too.  And hello to all you fabulous Northwestern Crows.

After leaving Homer in May, I flew out to Adak Island, in the central Aleutians.  This is where my Odyssey of nerd-dom really began.  Adak is an old Navy base which was abandoned by the military some time ago, after the Cold War had a chance to thaw out.  Bad puns aside, its now a bit of ghost town, although about 100 people live there and it gets a lot of visitors in the form of caribou hunters, birders and fisher-people.  

Harlequin Ducks are common in much of the Aleutians, although they do not breed here.  

When I first stepped foot out there, I walked around in a kind of giddy haze.  I didn’t really know what to expect.  As I stepped out of the airport terminal, a Rock Ptarmigan flew overhead.  Sick.  Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and Lapland Longspurs sang from…everywhere.  So sick.  It was really hard to get any work done with all of these birds around.  A Hawfinch in town was my first Siberian vagrant of the trip, and also the only one I got to see.  I don’t quite know why it was bothering to eat birdseed….it’s bill looked fit to crush human skulls.

Rock Sandpiper territorial displays are hilarious.  They kinda just wave one wing around at other sandpipers around.  Its pretty great.

The birding was really good.  Other highlights included dozens of Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets (which we could see from the road), Arctic Loons, Tufted Duck, Red-faced Cormorant, Bar-tailed Godwits, Arctic Terns, Common Redpoll, etc. etc.  All these birds were crippling me, and at times I was at an absolute and profound loss at taking in everything.  I just never really ever thought I’d have any business being in the Aleutians.  I’ve heard about Attu Island and its jaw-dropping roster of vagrants for as long as Ive been birding, so it was a pretty uncanny place to find myself.  After a few days the Buldir crew, the Kiska crew and the Agattu crew jumped onto the Tiglax with a bunch of fox trappers to be shipped out for the most bizarre summer I’ve ever had.

Look at this shit!  The Aleutians are incredible.