Attu, Alaska: Sea Otter skull and rifle shell, pen and walnut ink. The shells were all over the place. Attu was the only US soil that the Japanese occupied and invaded. There was a very bloody battle to recapture it.
living sea otters, thriving except for over-fishing of Haddock and poachers. A sea otter skin is worth between $500 and $1200. When Steller was at nearby islands there might also be huge Manatee like mammals (Steller’s Sea Cows) in the kept beds.
You used to be able to fly into Attu Island because there was an active Coast Guard station there. Although It is the farthest American island from Alaska in the chain of Aleutian Islands, it is in what are called the “Near Islands” because it is about 230 miles from the next islands, the Commander (Komandorski) Islands, which belong to Russia and, it was discovered from that end which, indeed, it is near. Attu is 45 miles long and 17 miles wide at its widest point. It is off the east coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The Commander Islands were named, incidentally for “Commander” Vitus Bering who died there. His purpose was to expand the Russian Empire which, at the time, was shocked to be told by him how far their Siberian territory actually extended. The far more interesting man, for me, who accompanied him on his explorations as physician and naturalist, Georg Wilheim Steller, got him there over his protests. Bering got lost and separated from his sister ship and wanted to sail due East to find the nearest land. But Steller, my kind of naturalist, by reading the flotsom, currents, and wildlife from the boat realized there was nearer land North East. Steller had a hard time convincing him from this data.
The crew had to over-winter when they reached the Commander Islands, and Steller tried to get them to eat berries and seaweed to avoid scurvy. Only a few did so. In some accounts Bering died of Scurvy, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t follow Steller’s advice, but they found Bering’s bones in 1990, and his teeth showed no evidence of Scurvy. (He also isn’t the fat guy in the portrait usually said to be of him.) Only 12 of the men, mostly Steller’s assistants who did eat berries and seaweed, were functioning at the end. One of their other big problems, it seems, was theft from Arctic Foxes – our problem, too, on Attu 300 years later. If you put a paper bag lunch down, it was likely to be stolen by the foxes — which, incidentally, were introduced onto Attu by the Russians from Siberia to see if there could be a fur industry there. They do not turn white in the winter like the genuine Arctic Fox.
I find it fascinating that at the time that Steller was in the Commander Islands, there was, living in the kelp beds, a huge (30 feet long) relative of the Manatee and Dugong, which he called a Sea Cow. The apparently tasty meat of the Sea Cow kept the Bering crew alive. Sea Cows had previously been widely distributed, even perhaps to California, but by Steller’s time they were only to be found on the Commander Islands probably because they had never been inhabited by indigenous peoples who hunted them. The last of the Sea Cows were hunted to extinction by the Russians over the next 20 to 30 years. Their family’s closest living relative is the Elephant!
Only drawing of a Sea Cow, perhaps, by Steller. All other images are copies of this one. Although looking fat because of the blubber, they were very muscular with dense bones to counterbalance the buoyancy of the blubber.
Our current West Indian Manatees, which can be seen in southwestern Florida, can’t tolerate water if it drops below about 68 degrees and swim up rivers to keep warm (where you get great view of them), yet this animal was living in the Arctic! I was hoping to find some evidence of them on Attu but all I could find was Sea Otter skulls like the one pictured above.
I flew into Attu with a bunch of birdwatchers. Most of them were going to all that trouble to be able to see Asian birds blown off course but still be able to “list” them as seen in the United States. By visiting Attu frequently they could build their list up into the 700′s while the average birder might be please with 500 to 600 birds seen on the Continental United States. An English birder I knew back home was astonished I was making the trip and offered to give me the name of a tea parlor in Japan at which I could sit comfortably, sip tea, and see all the same birds! I wasn’t going there to build my U.S. list but because it was a really wild place.
The legendary Reeves Airline pilots who are rumored to always fly in any weather, sometimes upside down, and be able to land anywhere, took people by chartered plane to Attu until about 2000. As it was we waiting a day before attempting the flight. It was a 5 hours flight from Anchorage (which is 1481 miles East) in a Boeing Electra 4 engine plane, which stopped to refuel on Adak island, a high security place where we could not leave the plane or use cameras or binoculars. Eventually we landed on a runway at Attu originally made with Marsden Matting which was a metal grid developed during World War II for quickly rolling out a runway as one might unroll chain-link fence. It was named after the North Carolina town in which it was made .
Marsden matting at Alexsi Point, Attu
A couple of Seabees during World War II could lay down a runway in 2 days. The photo above was not the runway used by Reeves. The one they used was kept in better condition by the Coast Guard with spots of asphalt. When Reeves did land on the better runway, they left a propeller running because there was no electricity that could be used to start the motor up again. Here’s my sketch of the only building on the runway.
“Attu International Airport”
closeup of sign
If you look at the sign closely, there’s something I find interesting about it. It says that this is the “Western most point of the USA”. True from the mainland you fly West. But look at the position. It is 173 degrees East. We have crossed over the division between West and East and are now “in the East” from one point of view or “in the Western most part of the USA” from another point of view, but, if it’s “in the East” why not claim it’s the easternmost point in the United States. As a joke, I used to say it was both all at the same time! Actually there’s a distinction between a place in terms of “direction of travel” and “longitude.” Usually from the direction of travel point of view somewhere in Maine is called the “Easternmost” point in the continental U.S., but if you kept going East, you would eventually wind up in Attu. There is also a way of deciding based on where is the first place to see the sun rise or last place set in the United States which, in the latter case, would be Attu. (It’s Guam if you include U.S. territories.)
The only reason Attu was accessible is that there was a Loran Station, to aid navigation, run by the Coast Guard which needed an air field to supply it. From the voice traffic I could hear on my portable walky-talky The Loran Station seemed to be use by Japanese fishing boats that we now know were over-fishing the Haddock to the point that the Sea Otters were declining as well as other animals and birds. This was before the GPS. Now the station is not in operation (closed in 2010), and the runway is not in good enough shape to use even by Reeves, so I don’t think many people go to Attu anymore because it would have to be by boat, but there are some tours still advertised.
As soon as we got off the plane we started walking with our gear toward the base camp pictured below. It was a long walk. The first bird up was a Lapland Longspur in breeding plumage. As we walked we found a pair of Smew, a male Ruff, Rock Sandpipers, Tufted Puffins, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, Slatey-backed Gull and Steller’s Sea Eagle! Birds I never expected to see in my lifetime. It’s enough to turn one into a lister!
Male and female Smew at the ponds(one in the background) near the runway as I stepped off the plane. Thrilling.
where we lived
We occupied an abandoned and rundown Coast Guard station, kind of camping out in it and striking out from there to look for birds, otters, whales, arctic foxes, and so forth (well, just birds for most of them).
my bunk at Attu
At the stove Attu
Here’s a typical day taken from my journal.
The choice today is whether to go to Alexi point by bike about 12 miles away around all of Massacre Bay (see map, click to enlarge) over muddy roads or somewhere else. We hear that there is a Spectacled Eider there. (Saw one but not today.) The day starts off as beautiful but windy. I decide to go.
click on map to enlarge. This trip is from the extreme left (base)to the extreme right (Alexski Point). This trip is all around Massacre Bay
The bike is hard on my quadriceps which start to burn, but I find I can keep up, and there are people who are worse than me. We stop for stragglers to catch up about four times. The road essentially looks like a rocky streambed, but the mountain bike is surprisingly fine over gravel and through mud and deep puddles, even rocks. The tires just push the rock aside. The road where it looks dry is covered with a low spongy mass of vegetation, so the best place to ride is in the muddy tracks of numerous others. I get the hang of biking: where to walk and where to ride. We go over what are called snow bridges over fast running streams. The bridge is actually nothing but an ice and snow drift that happens to over a stream that has burrowed through it. They are melting, and it looks like we may fall through at any moment.
At one stop we see Thick-billed Murre and then go on.
Thick-billed Murre: thicker bill than Common Murre with a white stripe on it
We finally park the bikes and eat lunch. We have been going for 2 hours. Then we hike into the point which is an old air strip with Masden matting through which dwarf willow has grown as well as many other tundra plants.
Hawfinch: very thick bill and clunky shape
The first thing we find is a Hawfinch, an Eurasian species that is rare. We call it in and mark the spot.
We then spread out and walk the habitat hoping to scare up something. (see photo below). We find some Golden Plovers of the West coast race (Pacific Golden Plovers).
When we get to the end of Aleski point a tern flies over which turns out to be a white-winged tern, a first for Attu, and a third for Alaska. Dan Gibson, the pre-eminent Alaskan ornithologist who has been invited to come along, picks up our transmission on the radio and hops on his bike to try to get there. The tern appears to be flying to the next island, so we go on. The party splits but keeps the radios on to report. I go with Steven, a young man who is very good at spotting birds.
We come upon an old wooden boat on a beach and see two turnstones and a Sanderling, but suddenly a ruffous necked stint pops up. We radio it in to the other group and start on. We get to a point on the beach and Steve sees the tern feeding off shore in kelp and essentially stationary. The other group finally gets to it and so does Dan Gibson who after seeing it lights up a big cigar.
I can’t tell if he’s celebrating the find or not. Later I ask him, and he says he smokes about 4 cigars a day because his wife won’t let him smoke in the house, and in the winter he would have to do so outside. Since he lives in Fairbanks, it’s not really feasible. He also says cigars are helpful if there are bears around (none on Attu but he’s often exploring elsewhere in Alaska). He carries firecrackers which scare bears off if they approach too closely, and lighting one with a cigar is more reliable than a match — particularly if your hand is shaking, and, of course a good excuse to keep smoking them when ever you expect there may be bears.
Dan Gibson & cigar
Dan’s the only person allowed to travel places alone. We all must travel with someone else and have a walkie-talkie with us. There’s nobody going to find us if we get lost and can’t call in. Interestingly, it was just mentioned casually, no big rule setting. You would have to be very reckless to just wander off here, and it was not necessary to emphasize the point. I, therefore, had to join a party everyday and chase birds whether I wanted to or not. It got to be kind of fun.
Steve also spots some Laysan Albatross just over the tern at the horizon. I could see there were about four, soaring up and around.
After that we searched around some more to no avail, and then I headed back. By then I had mastered the trick of riding the mountain bike, but it was a very long ride. There was one stop where someone saw a wagtail, but it had flown. Then on to the next stop near the base where there was a Greenshank. When I got there, it had been spooked. I got home just in time to get dinner. I was exhausted. I ate and then felt better, but went to bed almost immediately.
As you can see this isn’t “bird watching” or “going on a bird walk”. This is what seems to be called “Chase Birding” by some of the participants. They get notified of a rare bird or one they haven’t seen and chase after it (even when they are home). They are not interested in other birds because they already have them on their list, just the one that they are after. Some of the guys just hung around, having been on Attu several other times, and waited for something they hadn’t seen to be called in. One guy, Bill Riedel, a surgeon, told me the story of flying from California to Massachusetts because he was doing a “big year” (trying to “list” as many birds as he could in one year, 1992. He eventually saw 714 bird in the United States). He had a friend in Boston who knew where a Buff-breasted Sandpiper was and called him. He desperately needed this bird because he had missed it several places. He flew out on the night plane and “got” the bird at 9 A.M. and turned around and flew back the same day. He’s not the only one who told me stories like this.
The Hunt for the White-Tailed Eagle (June 6)
This is the guy for whom we’re looking. He flew over the base a couple of years ago and this picture was taken of him.
The highlight of a 14 mile round trip hike through knee deep snow banks in some places and wading across a river was to get to a White-tailed Eagle’s lair. There are lots of them on the Kamchatka Penisula 230 miles away, but this one, of course, could be on a U.S. list.
The first obstacle was a steep decline which we had to get down by holding on to a rope. The problem was the foot holes were muddy and slippery. The second obstacle was getting across Georges Creek.
There’s a trick to wading across a river like this. As you can see I’m moving sideways across the stream. If you don’t do it this way, you lose your balance. A little further behind me the river is considerably deeper. I’m wearing ordinary rain paints stuck into waterproof boots and held tight by bungee cords. If you make it across quickly enough, the system doesn’t leak. Some of the native Alaskans just took off their boots and waded barefoot in the icy water which is what they always did on mainland hikes, using a towel to dry off .
The eagle wasn’t anywhere to be seen when we finally got to the top of the gorge created by the Temnak River. We had been told the Eagle was an old male whose mate had died. We sat on a snowy ridge having lunch above the Temnak River looking down on a sandbar with a large flock of gulls to the left bathing in the fresh water to get the salt off their wings, a wreck of a P38 from World War II which crashed next to the river after taking off from Alexski Point, and a pair of Mergansers in the river itself . . .but no eagle.
After what seemed like a very long time and fighting the disturbing thought that this old eagle had finally died, the gulls began to act nervously and then suddenly flew off like an explosion. I knew the gulls had sighted the eagle as he approached the mouth of the river from the Bering Sea although he was still out of our sight. I turned around to tell some people to start to look for him. ”Where is he?” they asked. ”I don’t know,” I said, “But he’s coming.” They gave me strange looks since they had been scanning the endless cliffs with their binoculars and scopes and were exasperated. But then slowly and magisterially the eagle came up the river, lord of all he could see, not in the slightest bit in a hurry to keep his date with us. He was mostly white on his back which meant he was and old one. Then a pair of Peregrines started to harass him, but he paid them no mind. He landed on the cliffs on what appeared to be a nest which we hadn’t spotted before. Poor fellow was still trying to attract a mate by building a nest. There probably were females in the Commander Islands. A good wind blowing his way is what he needed. He blended into the cliffs so well I don’t think we would have been able to spot him if he had been there already when he arrive.
On the long hike back we got a radio message that another very rare bird (for the United States), a Far Eastern Curlew, had been spotted on the East end of the east-west runway all the way back from where we came.
Far Eastern Curlew
This is the largest migratory shorebird with the longest beak that curves downward ending in a teardrop. In 2006 it was estimated there were only 38,000 left. They are often on Kamchatka. This news helped to keep the pace up — another bird to chase. It was tough going, but the new bird kept us working hard, and I got into the spirit of the chase. I went up the rope on the ridge too fast and was winded. I saw the bird when I finally got back because we had left our bikes on the West end of the east-west runway and we just had to speed down it. As usual there were several scopes already set up on the bird, so it was easy to see. As I was looking at it, the Steller’s Sea Eagle few over the West end of the runway toward the base, but that’s another story. (See below)
It was nice to see the Curlew which is an odd looking bird that basically looks like the Long-billed Curlew here in the United States — a little bigger and, when it flies, it does not have the cinnamon wing linings that our bird has , but I’ll never forget sitting on the ridge above the Temnak Valley and that old White-tailed Eagle. And this sketch I did at the time helps to “capture” the thrill for me.
White-tailed Eagle harassed by Peregrine, Mergasters in the river and a wreck of a plane.
Steller’s Sea Eagle and Outhouse Lists
The Steller’s Eagle that flew over when I was looking at the Curlew headed for the base and actually landed on a telephone pole a few yards away. It has a white tail, thighs, and shoulders. Its yellow bill is enormous. It likes to scoop up fish in shallow water, and the salmon were obliging it here (and us as well). One night we all ate salmon caught here.
Steller’s Sea Eagle
no fishing rod used
We went outside to see the eagle and stood in the wind shelter of the base near an outhouse that had been set up there. Suddenly Larry Balch, the leader of the tour, runs into the outhouse, stands in the door, and looks at the Eagle. ”What are you doing?”, I ask. The answer (tongue-in-cheek): ”Now I have him on my outhouse list along with the White-tailed Eagle and a whole bunch of other birds.” Larry was a professor of mathematics and an avid birder, but he understood that listing was a bit strange, and enjoyed making fun of it. He had been the Attu 27 times by the time access became impossible to do so by plane.
The Steller’s Sea Eagle is the only bird on MY outhouse list!
This started a humorous discussion among all of us of strange lists that we kept and odd memories. I, for example, remember an Eagle I saw in Kenya when I stepped out of the jeep to urinate. I discovered to my surprise that many men had a similar experience, and some of them had fairly long lists (I have no idea what to call such a list). It’s quite a problem when you want to pee and get your binoculars on a life bird at the same time. Another common list is a “yard list.” One man told the story of waking up in the middle of the night to hear a Saw Whet Owl in his yard. The name comes for the peculiar call which sounds like someone sharping a saw. He was so exited to be able to have an owl on his yard list that he quickly threw some clothes on, grabbed his binoculars, and raced outside. No Owl. Then he realized in a panic that it was his fire alarm that was making the noise!
I managed to do a sketch of the Steller’s Eagle.