Wandering Aimlessly


Attu, Adak and Spring Migration

by Phil Burkhouse


Last week’s question dealt with the “Holy Grail” of rare North American birding, Attu.  A few readers might be familiar with the island of Attu, but only if they are really into birding, American history, or were stationed there with the Coast Guard.

Attu is the westernmost island at the end of the Aleutian chain of islands off the coast of Alaska.  It is 1100 miles from the Alaskan Coast but only 750 miles from the Kuril Islands of Russia.  It and the neighboring islands in the chain are all volcanic with cloud cover, rain, fog, and high winds.  Typically, these islands experience eight to 10 clear days a year, so they are not on the Alaskan cruise line destination schedule.

Attu was a former Coast Guard Loran Station but was closed in 2012.  It has been uninhabited since 2010, and since the Coast Guard closure, access to the island has been greatly restricted.  It was the Holy Grail for rare North American birds because during fallouts it attracts very rare Siberian birds that would not be seen anywhere else in North America.  The island is treeless and is mainly open tundra terrain.  The only means of transportation on the island is by foot or bicycle.  Once the island’s Coast Guard closed, access to birding also ended.  Once Attu was closed, it was thought the North America Big Year record would never be beaten, but in 2013 Neil Howard did break the record by one species without visiting Attu.


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