This page contains pictures and thoughts from an eleven-day birding trip to Adak Island, AK, in the middle Aleutians.
(Scroll down to the very bottom for the pictures if you are not interested in my blathering about the island.)
An Absurdly Brief History of Adak
Adak is an island of some 180,000 acres located in the
middle Aleutians. It is situated almost at the southernmost
latitude that the Aleutian Chain reaches as at arcs across the northern Pacific from North America
Historically, Adak and the surrounding islands were
home to the Aleuts, a hardy seafaring people who first established their presence on Adak some 9000
years ago. There they lived in relative isolation for millennia, hunting whales,
seals, seabirds, and fish in the harsh and unforgiving environment of the Aleutians.
Eventually, beginning in the mid-1700s, commercial fishing and hunting were
introduced to the Aleutian Islands, and slowly increased in their scope and intensity over time, to
deleterious effect. By the dawn of the 20th century, these activities had so
depleted the sea otter and fur seal populations in the Aleutians that the US Government was prompted
to establish the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge in 1913, which included Adak.
Quickly responding to the 1942 Japanese invasion of Attu
and Kiska Islands, the US Army Air Corps
established a base of operations on the northern half Adak Island. At its peak during the war, some 32,000 troops were stationed on Adak,
but Adak itself never saw combat. After the conclusion
of World War II, the base at Adak remained in operation for the next five decades. Control of the base passed between various branches of the US Armed Forces, ultimately coming under the
control of the US Navy. In general a presence of not less than 1000 was maintained
over the years, mostly centered in a small village on Kuluk Bay, which is now known as "downtown" Adak.
Then, in 1994, the US Government determined that the base at Adak
should be closed, and the Navy began the process of removing personnel and materials and shutting down operations. By 1997, the Navy had abandoned the island for good and is now in the process of turning over all the land
to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and to private parties. However, the environmental
impact of fifty years of military activity, mostly in the form of petroleum contamination, was extensive, and Adak
was declared a Superfund site after the base closure. The Navy's involvement
in environmental remediation continues to the present, and this remediation, one way or another, forms the basic occupation
for many of the island's residents.
Today, Adak closely resembles a ghost-town, with nearly
every building away from the town abandoned and in disrepair. Indeed, even a
large portion of the buildings in town are also abandoned and unsound.
But civilization there persists. Today,
Adak is inhabited by about 100 residents who have decided to make a go of it out on the very edge of
the North American continent. They have moved into the abandoned village and
now live in the old officer's quarters, which consist of a few streets worth of duplexes.
Many other buildings in town and at the harbor have also been claimed, and today the serve as such establishments as
general stores, a school, a hospital, a restaurant, a cannery, etc. etc. But
the bulk of the village remains abandoned.
The tiny community is supported by one major lifeline - the old airfield and
runways, which are kept in top condition. Twice a week, fifty-two weeks a year,
Alaska Airlines operates (with about 90% reliability) a 2600-mile round trip flight from Anchorage,
which brings the supplies needed to sustain the community, and a small number of visitors.
Most people who visit Adak are interested in fishing or hunting (there is a population of introduced
caribou on Adak), or perhaps simply in hiking and living for awhile in the solitude of the middle Aleutians. Trucks and vans are available for rent, and a small number of the old officer's quarters
have been converted into rentable spaces available on a weekly or monthly basis.
Now, recently, birders have also discovered this little island out in the north
Pacific. While the costs of getting to and staying on Adak
are considerable, it is a truly unique opportunity for birders in the middle and outer Aleutians. It is an island which one can easily reach on regularly scheduled Boeing 737-300,
stay in a good house (with heat, electricity, hot and cold running water, showers, a washer and dryer, telephone, and cable
TV), and drive around in a van on sometimes rough but easily passable roads. A
far cry from the horror stories of living on Attu, I think.
Of course, Adak is some 400 miles east of Attu
at the end of the Aleutian Chain, and so the chance for Asiatic rarities is greatly reduced compared to the legendary Attu. But the potential is there. In my short
eleven-day stay, which passed mainly without favorable weather for Asian strays, I was able to record such Asian vagrants
as Hawfinch, Far Eastern Curlew, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, "Siberian" Whimbrel, Ruff, and a probable Slaty-backed
Gull. And others in my group who were present this spring both before and after
I arrived, also recorded Smew, Lesser Sand-Plover, Common Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, and White Wagtail.
This treasure trove of Asiatic birds were all recorded in a single month during
spring, and spring, in my estimation, is inferior to the fall for the possibility of vagrants on Adak. The geography of the place dictates as much - only the northeastern section of the island is easily reached
by van, and during the spring, any vagrants are likely to approach Adak from the south or southwest
and make landfall on he opposite side of the island. Further, a stray bird pressing
north or northwest over the Pacific may land anywhere along the Aleutian Chain, and then continue north from that landfall,
making Adak a relative needle in a haystack.
In the fall, however, Adak's position at the "bottom"
of the Aleutian Chain makes it the perfect funnel for birds traveling along the islands - from both directions. Birds can land anywhere along the Aleutians, and then funnel either southwest or
southeast along the chain until they reach the southernmost point - Adak. At this time, birds are also more likely to make landfall on the northern end of the island where they
are more accessible by vehicle. Witness the list of Asiatic birds recorded on an
eleven day trip made by BIRD TREKS in September 2004, which was attended by a few of the same people I birded with this spring: Marsh Sandpiper (3rd record
for ABA), Oriental Cuckoo, Temminck's Stint, Fork-tailed Swift, Lesser Sand Plover, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Sharp-tailed
Sandpiper, Gray Wagtail, and Olive-backed Pipit.
Besides the potential for vagrants, Adak is perfectly
situated to witness the great masses of seabirds of the Aleutians, in season. Little Tanaga and Kagalaska Islands,
just next door to Adak and easily reachable by negotiating with the island's resident fishing boat
captain, is home to an astounding 20,000 or more of the notoriously rare and remote Whiskered Auklet. Whiskered Auklets are also occasionally seen by scoping from the shores of Adak,
with patience and the right viewing conditions. The other three "Alaskan" auklets,
Crested, Least, and Parakeet, are also seen regularly in low density from shore or on a boat ride.
At the right times of the year, a vast array of other sea-going birds are all
more or less easy to find close enough to land, or on inland ponds and lagoons, and we recorded them all: Kittlitz's, Marbled,
and Ancient Murrelets, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and Horned and Tufted Puffins; Arctic, Yellow-billed, and Pacific Loons;
Short-tailed Shearwater and Laysan Albatross; Parasitic Jaeger, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Arctic and Aleutian Terns; Emperor
Goose, “Aleutian” Cackling Goose, "Eurasian" Green-winged Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, and Tufted Duck; and Red-faced
Adak also has a few interesting land birds present in
abundance from spring to fall, if not all year. These include Lapland Longspur,
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Snow Bunting, Rock Ptarmigan, and "Aleutian" Song Sparrow.
In all, Adak’s accessibility and downright comfortable
living makes it truly a unique birding experience in the Aleutian Islands. I imagine that in the coming years, "Adak" will become a more famous and well-known
term among birders. I personally am looking forward to returning and spending
a few weeks there in the fall, hopefully sometime in the next few years.
For more information on Adak, two websites - www.adakisland.com and www.adakupdate.com - are quite informative. Indeed, I have relied on these sites for some of the
facts of Adak's history I discuss above. The tour provider
BIRD TREKS also has posted details from their very successful Adak outings over the last year, including some
detail about the actual Adak birding hotspots that I have not written about here.