Friday, June 3, 2016

Ptarmigeddon and the 700 club

Ptarmigeddon.  It is a word that speaks of something ominous, something large and possibly dangerous but it wasn’t.  Joining the 700 club for big year birding doesn’t get you a patch, a call from any of the other 700 club members, a call from the President or even for that matter a call from the president of the ABA. A very few have done it.   In truth is it just gets you tired, a significant credit card bill, and well it does get you good memories, too I suppose.  

For me it brought me closer to my daughter.  It took me 149 days, 19 hours and 25 minutes to see my 700th year bird.  Which itself is a record for speed.  No one has seen 700 species of birds in the ABA as fast as I have.  In the end, though reaching Ptarmageddon was a relief and for that matter a goal, a goal I made by four and a half hours (700 in under 5 months or 150 days but corrected for leap year made it a day sooner and I can’t count)…and I made it just barely but I’m getting ahead of myself….

ALASKA Strategy PART I, Adak

I woke up early on May 29.  Having arrived the night before to Anchorage and we had a morning before our flight to Adak left.  I was sitting at 693 after a perfect swing thru Arizona.  The assault on seeing my 700th bird began shortly thereafter as an attempt to drive the Arctic Valley Road northeast of Anchorage before anybody could get on it, unfortunately the gate was closed.   It said it was closed until 6am so I decided to drive south to Seward.  I saw a sign for the boardwalk at Potter Marsh, at mile 9.5 and we pulled in, and I thought better of the Seward plan.  Most of the Kittlitz’s Murrelets had only been seen by boat so I began to think it was a waste to drive 5 hours.  I couldn’t do that to my daughter.  This was only our second stop on a 10,000 mile journey and I needed to keep her happy.

She got out happy and we added a year Mew gull and two arctic terns for her and then being 6am, I drove back to Arctic Valley.  The gate was still closed.  We got out and walked.  It was then I heard an alder flycatcher calling.  I had almost forgot they live up here.  It was a start and bird #684 was off the board and then we waited for 7, thinking they would surely open the gate then, but alas….the military which I think controls the gate, said no.  It remained closed.  We walked around some more and then something stirred in the grass and scampered with clucks into the alders….willow ptarmigan.  State bird and year bird #685.   It was progress but it was all the area had.  We tried to bird Avalanche Park but we got bugged out.  We made it to the shore, spotted a Hudsonian Godwit, a bird my daughter needed and we both hustled back to the car bit up in the bargain.

We went back to our hotel for breakfast, then having switched my alerts for Alaska to hourly, got a hit.  Short-eared owl seen at Potter Marsh, we were just there so away we went.  Somewhat surprisingly, it was still flying over the marsh when we arrived and I began shooting photos.  After finding a store for supplies, we put on our patches to quell seasickness and headed in the airport.  One last stop at the lakes near the terminal yielded two added birds for my daughter.  We had worked hard, I had added three birds—now up to 696, and my daughter had added 11, and she was up to 421 for the year. 

the two of us ready to bird

We went to the airport, got through security, I bought a reward for later, and eventually boarded a rather sparse filled non-cargo 737.  I had flown the Alaska cargo planes to Adak earlier.  I saw a Forest Service guy that looked familiar but I saw no signs of birders.  Lena had long before passed out on a bench and resumed her nap enroute.  I apprehensive of the trip to Adak.  It would not be a friendly arrival and in fact, I’m sure the best I could hope for was indifference.  I landed to a sea of indifference, to be honest which was just fine with me.

The weather in Adak was bordering awful, it was raining and apparently the seas were terrible as a storm was pounding the passes with heavy wind.  Instead, we birded Adak.  Would there be enough birds?

My friend Don H had spotted a Far-eastern curlew on the beach today and we headed over to see it.  It was on the beach with a whimbrel.  It was a good code 4 bird, not a lifer for me as I had seen one in Attu in 2013 but a great find.

Next we headed to the clam lagoon, where there were not only sea otters, my daughter loves sea otters, and shot hundreds of photos of them, but birds we needed:
Kittlitz’s murrelets,

These critically endangered birds had caused me concern, both in terms that their populations are declining but because I was worried I’d miss them.   Here I was at bird 698 and I didn’t have to drive to Seward.  It was a good choice.

A mile down the road yielded bird 699, Aleutian tern.  

The best look I ever had of these birds…which are also on the decline.  I was on a roll but would I get 700?  A guy could be stuck on 699 for a while.
We went around one corner and there it was.  I hopped down into the ditch to get a better picture.  It was the first of Adak’s ptarmageddon of rock ptarmigans……..a grouse in all its glory, it was bird 700 and I had reached the promised land!


then these birds were everywhere, on roofs, in ditches, back yards, everywhere

Cool!  Whew!  My daughter gave me a high five but otherwise it was muted.  It was not a lifer but it would be a beer night tonight (I had snuck one with) with a little private celebration……at least by me. 

The day though was NOT over.  Earlier, a fish processing ship was seen offshore with a mile of seabirds and gulls behind it.  We found the boat in port and sitting on the dock next to the Puk-uk  our home for the next 4 nights, was this coded gull, a Slaty-backed gull, undoubtedly lured in by the stench of fish.  

A bird some chased but I knew I’d see it somewhere in Alaska, that somewhere was here on Adak.  It was dark on wet but I went up and got the picture.   By morning, it was gone.

We settled into the boat as the wind howled, and met the crew, Captain Billy, and cook Nicole, both I met before on my trip to Attu in 2013.  Oxsanna had replaced Jake as first mate.  Billy runs a real top notch operation on his little 72 foot ship and the food was great.  Aboard, it had 8 birders and John Puschock and Neil Hayward as the guides.  Mr. Hayward is the owner of the record some could say I am chasing.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  Let me say it here, I think everyone got along, or at least they tolerated me.

May 30th 31st, June 1 At sea

We birded Adak, and flushed three common snipe during the day. 

This is the first time I have heard them winnow, they do not sound like Wilson’s snipe and are a coded bird, I would see later but here is fine.  Lena got many many birds, but for me, that was it for the day on land before we headed out to sea that evening as the weather improved.

Finally we had a break and as our ultimate destination as unobtainable due to the delay so we followed a lead of a fishing vessel of where to find albatross.  The most entertainment was watching each of us get into our survival suits.  It was fun seeing all of us look silly.  But….it is good to practice in case of an emergency which itself is no silly matter.
Chris Feeney in his suit,

Once underway, it didn’t take long to start knocking out the ticks…….

703.  Short-tailed shearwater   

704. Horned puffin

705. Whiskered auklet

706. Least Auklet

707.  Short-tailed albatross

708.  Red-legged kittiwake

709.  Crested auklet.

It was great.  The kittiwake was a bonus bird.  We saw many sights, killer whales, caribou, other birds I’d see before but still cool, and I think, it is just my opinion though, that everyone enjoyed themselves.

Here are some of the sights

We got back on the first to port just as the weather got really bad.  There was still some daylight to go so we all went around the neighborhood and at the first pine tree, we spied not only grey-crowned rosy-finches

But a hawfinch, an Asian vagrant and year bird 710

It was also a lifer bird for me

Actually the sun came out on the last day as we toured the island a last time for any more vagrants and refound the far-eastern curlew.   It was a time for good-byes, and the last time to climb the cursed ladder to get up on the dock from the boat.

Some highlights from the trip include Neil Hayward and Don H holding a Leach’s and fork-tailed storm-petrel that got lost and landed on the boat one night.

We also had a whiskered auklet fly into the boat which impressed my daughter.  I guess a bird in hand is better than one on the camera.

I guess bird 700 was a highlight as well.
The low point, these ladders

Capt Bill and Chris near the plank to walk to the ladder
I also lost my second university of Minnesota hat, it blew off in the tempest at sea and then was last sen being carried away by a glaucous winged gull, I kid you not.  I tried to get a photo but it flew off behind boat to this stunned observer.

Big Year Total:  710
Coded Birds:  65

number to go to old record:  40
Miles driven.  30,235
Flight Miles 93,200
flight segments: 96   Different Airports: 40
Hours at sea: 172
Miles walked 201
showshoes 4 (isn't going to be any more)
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded: 31
Lifers seen this year:  48
nights slept in car:  9

best mammals: steller's sea lion, killer whales

Tour.  $2450
flight $35 miles
hotel  $460 (double booked a hotel by mistake extra $200 in cluded)
incidentals and food $210
rental car Anchorage $55
total  $3210

Let me say, I was a bit grumpy after a weird screw up/ confusing reservation in booking hotel on backside of this but the staff at Lakefront hotel in Anchorage was great, you pay more here but it is one of the few hotels, I think it worth the price. so.

In the end I had added 14 birds in Adak, after 3 in Anchorage, the only significant miss was a mottled petrel which is a tough get at sea, I did get 5 coded birds.  The best bonus bird was the hawfinch, which was bird 710.  I needed a lot more birds, better birds and continued luck.

The smile on my daughter’s face however was more than any number, she looked to be having a great time and the bonding we are having on this trip is beyond words.  I never saw her sulking the whole time, she was happiest seeing otters and the three killer whales we saw. 

Next installment….Gambell.  Today I’m just basking in the trip that was…..Adak, thank you Adak (and John, Neil and the crew of the Puk-uk.)  



  1. 800+ Olaf 90 to go! Not even half way done with year. You should go to Hawaii and Cuba in case they ever change the ABA area.

    1. good thoughts, I guess, but an unobtainable goal

  2. How many days of birding did you actually have on Adak? And you took a boat boat trip while there? What tour company did you use? I'm trying to figure out if I'll ever be able to make it out there! I'm curious what I might get fot $2450!

    1. Zugunruhe. John pushocks well two days on Adak. Should have been one but weather kept us in port.

  3. Congrats my friend on the magic 7. Good for Lauren too, another rising young star in the birding world. Makes one feel good that all is right with the world after all. Hope it will be a lifetime passion for her too. Some good birds waiting for you on Gambell. Was looking forward to the story of Chris making it into his survival suit. Your photo showed " it can be done "!! Have fun.

  4. Glad to have been along for part of the journey. Having your daughter join you told me what I needed to know...good folks. Just remember Tim Bucked Two ;-)

  5. Congrats on 700! Think big and don't let up.

  6. You are doing fantastic, Olaf! I hope Gambell treats you well!


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