John Puschock is a Seattle-based bird tour leader and owner of Zugunruhe Birding Tours, which offers tours to far-flung birding hot spots including the fabled Attu Island in the Aleutians. I've been dreaming about going to Attu since the early 1980s, when I first read about it in James Vardaman's classic recounting of his 1979 North American Big Year Call Collect, Ask for Birdman. In 1995, when I was planning my own North American Big Year as a fundraiser for Audubon (but that's another story), I actually paid the $300 down payment for a spring trip to Attu, but when Audubon pulled its support for the venture and I lost that deposit and a few years later Attour closed down its trips. It looked like my chances of getting to Attu, and seeing dozens of cool Siberian vagrant birds in North America, were gone for good. A few years ago Victor Emanuel Nature Tours stopped by Attu, and last year Zugenruhe started offering boat-based trips there again. So perhaps I can still get out there yet!
I first met John Puschock back in 2006 when I was out in San Diego. I found a locally rare Marbled Murrelet off La Joya Cove, and John was one of the incredulous birders who showed up to look for it for several days before it was rediscovered and my sighting was vindicated. The funniest thing I remember about hanging out with John at La Jolla Cove was when I asked if I could borrow his scope, and he said I could as long as I didn't have pink eye. Funny guy!
Anyway, I've kept up with John off and on over the past few years, and am happy to have him join me on here for a Birdchaser Interview:
BIRDCHASER: So, when we met back in 2006, were you already leading tours then?
JP: First off, if the line about the pink eye was the funniest thing you
remember, I must have been having an off day. Sorry about that ;-)
And yes, I started leading tours in 2004 for Bird Treks, and when I moved to San Diego in 2005, I also began a business doing day trips around southern CA. I’ve since moved to Seattle and started Zugunruhe Birding Tours, but I still work for Bird Treks, too. But I’ve dropped the San Diego day trip portion of the business since the commute was a killer.
B: How did you start going to the Aleutians?
JP: The long version of the story begins with me not seeing a Gray-headed Chickadee, at least not definitively, while working in northwest Alaska in 1998. But no one wants to read a long story on a blog...The short version is I read Ted Floyd’s account of his trip to Adak in Aug 2003 and that the island was becoming accessible to the general public, so I asked Bob Schutsky, owner of Bird Treks, if he’d be interested in working with me to develop a tour there. He said yes.
B: What have been some of your best birding experiences on Adak?
Literally at least ten things come to mind, but I’ll try to pare it down...Every time we go out on a boat to look for Whiskered Auklets is special. I’ve seen quite a few now, but it’s still a mythical bird to me. Seeing one just twenty feet away never gets old.
I’ve seen four Marsh Sandpipers on Adak, and those were all great. The last two were together, and I had seen one a week earlier when I didn’t have a group with me. I told the tour participants about that bird (the one I saw by myself) before they got there, and that I didn’t expect it to stick around long enough for them to see it. I was right about that, so finding another two while my group was there more than made up for that – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat added to the excitement.
But my favorite experience was finding an Eastern Spot-billed Duck. It was late in the day, probably 9 PM, and unfortunately I didn’t have a group with me at the time – I had stayed a few extra days after my group had left – so I was driving around Clam Lagoon by myself. I surprised a group of Mallards near the road, and they all jumped. I put my binoculars on part of the group flying away and thought to myself, “That one looks different.” It landed, I got a quick scope view, and I was soon flying down the road back to town to get the other birders on the island. Some of them were already in bed, but everyone came out for it.
B: How did you end up deciding to do trips to Attu?
JP: I’ll go with the short version again: I found a boat that was close enough to Adak to make the trip financially feasible. I know a few others had tried to get there since Attour closed up shop, but the stumbling block always was finding reasonable transportation. The closest appropriate boats had been in southeast Alaska, and the cost of getting them to the Aleutians was prohibitive. Luckily, I found out about a boat, the Puk-Uk, in Homer.
B: There was a serious Attu birding culture and community that developed around Attour. Are you getting some of those old Attuvians coming back now on your tours?
JP: I had one Attour Attuvian on last year’s trip (our first), two who were on the VENT trip in the fall of 2006, plus one of my guides, Mike Toochin, was an Attour guide throughout the 90s. Now that we’ve proved we can do the trip and I’ve been able to drop the price too, I’m hoping some more will join us. I’ve always been interested in the history and tradition of birding, so it would be great to hear stories about the old days.
B: How are trips to Attu different now than they were back in the glory days of Attour?
JP: We sleep and eat on the boat now, not the old buildings that Attour used. Those building are still there, by the way, along with everyone’s list totals written on the walls. There are fewer people on our trip, but otherwise I think it’s pretty similar. We have bikes to get around, and it’s still windy.
B: Given that some years are better than others, what should a birder expect to be able to see on your Attu trips?
That’s a tough question if you’re asking about Asian vagrants. Last spring, the Aleutians were plagued with north winds for weeks. That’s not the direction you want the winds to be blowing for vagrants, and we did miss some that I thought were a sure thing: Lesser Sand-Plover and Common Sandpiper come to mind. We also had low numbers of Wood Sandpipers (3) and Long-toed Stint (1). But we did get other “expected” species such as Rustic Bunting and Brambling, plus other less-expected species like Hawfinch, Red-flanked Bluetail, and the bird of the trip, the first accepted North American record of Solitary Snipe. Of course, the species normally resident in the Aleutians and Bering Sea would be expected. We saw tons (probably literally) of alcids, included Whiskered Auklet. We saw every seabird expected and not-so-expected in the area, including Short-tailed Albatross, Mottled Petrel, and Red-legged Kittiwake. The bottom line is that a birder can expect to see vagrants and other cool birds that can't be entirely predicted, though the Whiskered Auklets are very likely.
B: Can birders see as many birds on Attu with these smaller groups as they did back in the day when there were larger groups potentially covering more parts of the island?
JP: I’m sure we’ll miss a bird here and there with our smaller group, but I think we’ll get most of them. For a long time, I thought you could only bird the island with a large group, but then the thought occurred to me that Univ. of Alaska-Fairbanks has been sending a team of two to the island for years to collect specimens, and they’ve been turning up good birds all the time. If two could do that, certainly ten could do even better.
BP: For the cost of an African safari, why should someone bird Attu or the Aleutians? What makes the Aleutians, and Attu in particular, so special?
I’m not going to tell anyone they should bird the Aleutians. Everyone has different interests. Even among the Attour crowd, people came for different reasons. From what I’ve heard, there were even a few who weren’t birders. But I will say why someone might enjoy it:
The Aleutians are a corner of the world that’s unlike anywhere else and almost certainly completely different than where you live. In that respect, it’s the same as an African safari or any other exotic location. It’s wild and remote. It’s an expedition. I like the excitement of not knowing what I might find...and then the excitement of finding it. And while Attour was finding all those first North American records, Attu was elevated to legendary status among birders, so there’s that aspect to it, too -- walking around Lower and Upper Base (where Attour used to stay) was like being in a shrine. Of course, if you want to pump up your ABA list, there’s no better place to go, particularly if it’s your first visit to the Bering Sea region.
There’s always that cost-per-bird issue with trips like this (and implicit in your question). If you’re a world birder, particularly if you’ve already seen the Beringian endemics like Whiskered Auklet and Red-legged Kittiwake, and your interest is getting more life birds, frankly there’s no reason to go to Attu. But if you’re into your ABA list, then this trip makes more sense, especially if you haven’t been to Alaska before. It would save having to make a separate trip for the Auklet, plus you may see all the resident species you would see at St. Paul, possibly saving a trip there (though admittedly the experiences would be different – at St. Paul you get to see the seabirds from close range while both you and the birds are on land).
I like to do trips that go beyond just ticking off lifers and are about the quality and/or uniqueness of the experience, and this is one of them. As an aside, I just got back from a tour that was my favorite ever – great birds, great people – and the trip list was only 19 species. No lifers for me, but among the 19 were Ross’s and Ivory Gulls, Spectacled Eider, and Snowy Owls. Gotta love that...But I don’t have anything against racking up a big trip list, either.
My answers are getting too long. How about some simple questions that don’t require me to think too much?
B: OK, before we finish up, maybe you could tell us your favorite thing about being a birding guide?
JP: The vicarious excitement of tour participants getting lifers and experiencing new things, but that isn’t unique to being a guide -- from my experience, just about every birder enjoys helping someone else find a bird. Getting to travel more than I would otherwise is another job benefit. I know you asked for just one thing but I’m giving you two.
That was my real world answer. My fantasy world answer would be something like this: Children running up and wanting me to autograph their binocular straps, the defeated and embarrassed look on old classmates’ faces at a high school reunion when they find out I’m a birding guide and they’re just brain surgeons and astronauts, all the attention from the ladies, and of course the money. That’s my fantasy world answer!
B: What advice might you give to potential tour participants about choosing the best tour for them?
JP: Wings (the tour company, not the band) has an essay on their website that has just about all the advice anyone would need, so even though I’m directing your readers to a competitor’s website, my advice would be to read that essay. The only additional advice would be to check with the tour operator to see when you’re expected to wake up in the morning. Not everyone enjoys getting up at o-dark-thirty.
B: And to get us out of here, gazing into your crystal ball, what new or upcoming trends do you see in birding and bird touring?
JP: Before I answer that, I want to say that if you’re not part of any trends, it doesn’t mean you’re a substandard birder. I don’t want to give the impression that you have to be part of a trend to be “with it”, and what we think of as birding will remain 98% unchanged, just as it has been since shotguns were traded in for field glasses. Also, these trends will be felt most by those of us for whom birding is a lifestyle (e.g., anyone reading your blog). With that said...
There will be an acceleration of the instant access to information that began in the early- to mid-90s due to wider use of and improvements in smartphone-type mobile devices, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that coming since listservs already have real-time updates coming in from iPhones and Blackberries.
Soon no one will be complaining about a field guide being too big to carry in the field because with color e-book readers and iPads we’ll be able to carry a birding library on one small device.
Birders will take advantage of their mobile devices and cameras with audio recording capability to make more sound recordings. This will eventually lead to less fear of any Red Crossbill splits.
One trend I hope to see in the next two years is a resurgent ABA. For that to happen, I think they need to start broadening their focus and also make the internet work for them instead of against them as it has been. For example, they could create members-only wiki site guides and convert their membership directory into a Facebook-like website. I wrote a lot more on that subject on my blog. You may want to check it out if you’re having trouble sleeping. Another thing I hope to see is a book about Guy McCaskie and/or the 1970s California birding scene.
In the realm of bird tours, I think multi-day pelagic trips will grow somewhat, and some “new” destinations, both within the ABA Area and worldwide, will become more popular. I could go into some of that in more detail, but I don’t want to beat you over the head with the self-promotion. ;)
Looking further into the future, mobile devices will be able to take a picture of a bird and identify it, leading us to debate if that’s really “birding” or not. While we’re arguing about that, our machines will become self-aware, realize human birders are unnecessary, and attempt to exterminate us all. After that, a certain someone in Arizona will finally complete his guide to flycatchers, something I’ve been waiting for since 1997.
B: Thanks John, hope to be out birding with you again soon, and not just visiting here on the interwebs. Best of luck on Attu--may all your trips be filled and first North American records abound!
JP: Thank you, Birdchaser!