Birding at the Edge

Attu, the outermost of the Aleutian Islands, is remote, primitive, and cold, but it is the likeliest place in North America to catch sight of a number of avian rarities

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."

Why is 800 so hard to achieve? The official ABA checklist contains a total of 906 species, each of which is assigned a code from 1 to 6: Code-1 birds are common; Code-6 birds are extinct or unrecorded in the past century or seen only in captivity. Some 665 birds are designated Code-1 or Code-2, and twelve are Code-6. About 130 are Code-5 (fewer than ten recorded sightings over the past century), and the rest are Code-3 or Code-4. According to the checklist, Code-1 birds "occur routinely and are easily found," and Code-2 birds are "a bit more difficult to find than are Code-1 birds." This matter-of-fact language makes it sound as if finding Code-1 and Code-2 birds is simple—but consider my personal quest for the mountain quail, a Code-2 bird that, like me, is resident in Oregon. Over the past three years I have made at least twenty trips and driven more than 3,000 miles to appropriate habitat, and I have yet to get a definitive look at this elusive bird. I have concluded that Code-2 birds are indeed "a bit more difficult to find."

Birding on Attu was carried out in a great arc centered on Massacre Bay. To the north is the Gilbert Ridge, a range of mountains hugging the northern shore of the bay, with Alexai Point at its eastern end; to the south is Casco Cove, where Base is located, and farther south is Murder Point, a promontory looking out over the open expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Groups of ten to fifteen birders with bicycles fanned out around the bay, maintaining contact by radio. We hoped that if a rarity was sighted at Alexai Point, we wouldn't be at Murder Point, fourteen miles away. But even if we were, the wisdom of the old-timers was "Go now, because if you wait till tomorrow, the bird will probably be gone."

I was with a group walking the beaches of Casco Cove when a call came in from the Gilbert Ridge: Siberian rubythroat! We piled onto our bikes for the four-mile dash, praying that the bird would stay put. When we arrived, a row of birders was stationed along the rutted track at the base of the ridge, scopes and binoculars trained on a clump of willow shrubs. I focused my binoculars on the willows, staring at a tan leaf that seemed larger than the others. Suddenly the "leaf" turned toward me with a dazzling flash of its fiery-red throat. The birder next to me spoke in a hushed voice. "Jeeezuss," he said, "what a bird."

Birders usually don't say "I saw the bird"; they say "I got the bird" or "I have the bird." And when they have gotten it, they take it (tick it on their life lists). The choice of verbs is revealing, suggesting possession, ownership. Of course, not all birds are gotten equally. Sometimes the light is perfect, the bird is close, and the key field marks are readily observed. Other times everything is marginal: the light is poor, the angle is wrong, and the bird is distant or partly obscured. How much do you have to see to be certain? When do you have the bird?

As the days passed, we were increasingly concerned about the weather. It had become too nice. At first this was a welcome change, a chance to dry out and warm up. But the respite from bad weather came at a high price—no new birds. The sentiment shifted from "We need a break" to "We need a storm." We would later be reminded of the aphorism "Be careful what you wish for."

One day in the meantime, I was sitting at Murder Point, hunched against the freshening wind, when a radio report came in: a Mongolian plover had just been sighted by a group at the tip of Alexai Point. I was as far away as I could be—but the old-timers would say, "Go now!" So I fast-walked the two miles to Base, climbed on my bike, pedaled six miles to the beginning of the Gilbert Ridge, leaped off the bike every couple of hundred yards to push it through the snowbanks that lay across the track for four miles along the ridge, and traveled the final two miles on foot to arrive at Alexai Point. It had taken me more than two hours to get there. "Is it still here?" I asked the people at the stakeout. "Haven't seen it for at least half an hour," someone told me, "but we're about to go out on the tidal rocks—that's where it flew." The kelp on the rocks was wet and slippery, the tide was coming in, and we had to hurry before our exit route was submerged. And then there it was—a fragile, sweet, innocent being in the middle of a vast expanse.

The storm we had wished for came the day before we were scheduled to leave. In a matter of hours the weather turned from sunshine and warmth to cold, rain, and eighty-knot crosswinds —too much even for the Electra. The delay would grow from hours into five full days. We milled around, anxious about families and jobs, worried about travel connections, running low on prescription medicines, eager to leave.

A few days before we finally got off the island, the weather eased enough for us to bike to the ponds near the runway for good looks at Aleutian terns gathering to breed. As we walked the hummocks around the ponds, one of the leaders thought he heard a wood sandpiper—a Code-4 bird. A gray form whizzed over our heads and dropped in behind a small ridge. We sprinted to the ridge and peered over the top. I had a fleeting look and then the bird was gone. Damn, I said to myself, I saw it, but I didn't get it. Over the course of the next hour the bird was briefly sighted two more times. Then, suddenly, it landed less than a hundred feet from us, and stayed. It was looking right at us, almost as if it knew why we were there. "Sure would be nice if we could see the back," I whispered to no one in particular. The bird turned 180 degrees, revealing its spangled back, sprinkled with white and buff. "Doesn't it like to bob its tail?" someone asked. The bird bobbed its tail. "Aren't the wing linings key, paler than in the green sandpiper?" The bird shook itself and raised its wings. "It would be great to hear the song." A soft, rolling tweadle, tweadle, tweadle emanated from the bird. "Isn't the song louder and harsher when the bird is in display flight?" The bird soared into the air, repeating its song, loud and sharp. As the wood sandpiper flew out of sight, there was a brief, stunned silence and then the crowd of bedazzled observers erupted into spontaneous applause—a standing ovation on the windswept tundra of Attu.