We stood huddled on the soggy tundra beside the remote airstrip, our backs to the thirty-five-knot wind and horizontal sleet. For reasons hard to explain to those we had left behind, we had come to this stark and distant place in search of birds. As the sleet pelted Gore-Tex and infiltrated cracks in our clothing, I found myself wondering, Why am I here? Why do we do this?
On the tarmac in front of us was the plane in which we had arrived, a 1950s-vintage Lockheed Electra L-188 turboprop, operated by Reeve Aleutian Airways. The plane—a forerunner of the model the U.S. Weather Service uses to fly into hurricanes—looked old-fashioned but seasoned. It had carried us 1,492 miles west of Anchorage, past the 180th meridian, to the end of the Aleutian Islands: to Attu, the Holy Grail of North American birding.
In bucket-brigade fashion we off-loaded our bags from the cargo bay and stowed them under a tarp by the runway. We turned to watch the Electra taxi for takeoff. The plane would not soon return. Like it or not, we would spend the next two weeks on this desolate island, uninhabited except by us birders and a few members of the U.S. Coast Guard operating a navigation station. As we stood shivering in the wind, the group leaders explained that they needed to set up our quarters. In the meantime, we were going birding! For the next five hours, in what became whimsically known as "the Death March," we trudged along the shores of Massacre Bay. The weather was so bad that birding was nearly impossible: binoculars fogged up and wind shook spotting scopes. Eventually we returned to the tarp by the runway to pick up our stuff and lug it the two miles to "Base."
Less than 250 miles from Asia, Attu is still part of Alaska, and therefore part of North America. This means that Attu is also part of the "ABA Checklist Area," a geographic entity defined by the American Birding Association as, essentially, North America north of the U.S.-Mexican border. The inclusion of Attu in the ABA Area matters to birders because they keep lists of birds seen in specific regions. Many consider the list of birds they have seen in the ABA Area to be the most important yardstick of their skill and achievement. Attu, because it is close to Asia, is likely to harbor Asian vagrants blown off course in their migration to Siberia—birds seldom if ever seen on the North American mainland. Attu offers an opportunity to see species for the first time—to get "lifers."
A recent convert to serious birding, I had been unaware of Attu except as a distant World War II battle site. Then, in September of 1998, while bouncing around in a fishing boat on a pelagic birding trip off the coast of California, I heard one of the guides describe his recent trip to Attu. He spoke with awe and excitement about the birds he had seen. When I got home, I called the director of Attour, the outfit that had organized birding trips to Attu since the late 1970s. He told me that the three trips offered in 2000 would be the last. I sent in a deposit for the two-week trip planned for May of the final year.
Now, some eighteen months after I had signed up, here I was in the wind and sleet with a bunch of people I'd never met. There were eighty-six of us in all, sixty-three men and twenty-three women—seventy-four paying customers and twelve leaders and staff members. As we approached an aging building at the south end of Casco Cove, I wondered if this decrepit structure could possibly house us for the coming two weeks. It had been erected just after World War II and abandoned in 1960. Exhausted, soaked, and curious, we went inside. Despite ongoing mopping and the use of "salamanders," kerosene-powered heaters that blew hot air onto the concrete, the floors were covered with water throughout the building. As I walked down a dank hallway and peered into the rooms, I noticed some writing on the few places where the walls weren't crumbling—summaries of previous trips, with names and life totals for the ABA Area. Some of the totals were over 800, and nearly all the rest were in the 600s and 700s. A few months before departing for Attu, I had taken considerable pride in reaching the 500-bird milestone. I stared at the big numbers on the wall and thought, I'd better keep my mouth shut.
When you start out, birding is simple. I tell beginners to think about music, motion, and anomaly: music because we often hear birds before we see them; motion because our eyes are more likely to notice something that is moving than something that is not; anomaly because a silent, motionless bird may stand out in some other way. Each of these fundamentals has deeper implications. You learn, for example, the importance of specific motions—flicking of the tail, bobbing of the head, frequency and depth of the wingbeats. British birders coined the term "jizz" (from G.I.S.—"general impression and shape") to describe the gestalt of a bird, an impression that often has to do with the way it moves. Top birders sometimes amaze the rest of us by making identifications at great distances from jizz alone.
I was assigned to Room 9, a twelve-by-eighteen-foot space I would share with nine other men. The floor lay beneath a quarter inch of water; a cardboard sign on the wall, left by the previous year's occupants, read HOME SWAMP HOME. The room was furnished with five bunk beds. Because all ten of us were essentially middle-aged men, pleas for a lower bunk because of "prostate problems" fell on deaf ears. Eventually we got ourselves settled. That night dinner was canned chili with stale crackers. Coming as it did after the Death March and our uneasy introduction to Base, it was one of the best meals I've ever had.
After lights out, at 11:00 P.M., which coincided approximately with the setting of the sun almost due north of us, I lay in my bunk trying to determine how many of my roommates were snoring. Soon I began to perceive that there was a soloist in the nocturnal orchestra. His cadenzas would begin quietly, with an even measure, an almost soothing quality. Then the volume and tempo would increase, rising in a great crescendo, at the peak of which he would cry out, "Oh, geez!" or "Oh, my God!" The thought came to me again: Why am I here? Why do we do this?
According to a recent national survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, about 70 million Americans watch birds. But fewer than a hundred have 800 or more birds on their ABA life lists—an achievement that requires amazing drive and persistence. I asked one of them what he had done when he got lifer No. 800. He said, "I started looking for Number 801."