Gray-tailed with Wandering Tattler
Gray-tailed Tattler (on left) with Wandering Tattler
Deva and I have several birding friends whose spouses are not birders.  We figure these marriages must have a few valleys among the peaks, but since we’re both birders we never experienced a problem until we went to Attu in May of ’89 and neglected a simple rule there—don’t split up!

At the base of Alexai Point one morning, unthinking, we nearly blew off 25 years of marriage.  Deva went with Terry Savaloja and ten others south toward the tip to see what they could see, but a few of us challenged Jerry Rosenband to turn up his annual Emperor Goose east along the beach to McCloud Head.  A couple miles out—gooseless miles—Jerry’s radio crackled.  Terry had come up with a Gray-tailed Tattler, a lifer for the three of us still with Jerry.  We tracked Jerry another mile or so, whining and moaning about the impossible decisions with which Attu burdens its luckless visitors, until he finally got tired of hearing it and told us to head back to the tattler.  The tattler was five miles away!

Harold Fogleman, his son Harold Jr., and I proceeded to make one of those forced marches for which Attu has become legendary.  We slipslided that five miles of kelp-slick boulders and soft sand in just over an hour, passing several birders who had left Jerry’s group long before we had.  As we crested the point from the beach, we could see members of Terry’s group straggling back across the point toward the bicycles.  They were all moving fast!

We intercepted the retreating line at Dave DeLap, about half a mile from the point and the tattler.  It was breezy and only 50 degrees, but Dave was flushed and sweating.  Breathlessly he gasped the message of a North American record Narcissus Flycatcher back at Henderson marsh, six miles from the bikes!  Harold, Harold Jr., and I just looked at one another, rolled our eyeballs, and headed on out toward the point.  The look of consternation on Dave DeLap’s face as we turned our back on him, and on the flycatcher back at Henderson, was the highlight of my Attu trip.  He must have thought his lips had suddenly begun speaking in tongues as we ignored his pleas about the implications of a North American record bird.  A Gray-tailed Tattler was stale news for an old Alaska hand like Dave, but for us it was an easy decision—why chase a lifer seven miles away before picking up the one only half a mile out for which we had just backtracked five?

Besides, Terry and Deva were still at the point sitting on the tattler for us, weren’t they?  We were surprised when the next speck on the point trail horizon materialized into Terry Savaloja, but not to worry he yelled, as he hustled past with the same faraway look in his eyes we had seen in Dave’s, Deva was still on the tattler for us, wasn’t she?  Well, the next speck hurrying toward us was the last speck, and it was bright purple, unmistakably the color of Deva’s new gore-tex parka.  When we reached her we were still a quarter mile from the point, and I grabbed her before the two Harolds could.  They were about to grab her because she evinced absolutely no intention of even slowing down for a little chat.  Where was the tattler?

With a now all too familiar look in her eyes, she tossed her arm in the direction of the point, broke away from me, and ran after Terry.  Harold and Harold Jr. shook their heads with knowing smiles.  Smiling was not one of the things that crossed my mind.  Their spouses were in Maryland.  Mine might as well have been.

Our plight became all too apparent when we topped out at the end of the trail overlooking the actual point.  We did not see the tattler.  What we saw was a quarter mile expanse of wet, jumbled, tattler-colored rock jutting out into the ocean!  Hurling imprecations at the rapidly departing purple speck, we decided to split up and quarter the beach.  We covered it thoroughly to no avail, then traded areas and combed it again.  Then we traded areas and combed it again . . . and again.  Finally, at the forty-five minute mark, a rock moved, then another.  We had found the Gray-tailed and his traveling companion, a tantalizingly similarly feathered Wandering Tattler, side by side.  Because of their cryptic coloration, if they hadn’t moved we’d still be searching.

As we dug guidebooks and cameras out of our packs, I noticed a funny, faraway look creeping into Harold Sr.’s eyes.  Someone brought up the fact that we shouldn’t spend too much time at this—after all, there was a North American record Narcissus Flycatcher flipping around back in Henderson.  Yes I said, but there was really no hurry because Deva, or Dave, or Terry, or maybe everyone else on the island was sitting on it for us . . . or maybe we would miss it by forty-five minutes?  At this point exhilaration and fatigue claimed us, and we all collapsed in the sand howling with laughter.  The startled tattlers took off over the edge of the world.

As a postscript I must admit the Harolds and I got to Henderson in time.  And everyone else on the island was already there.  But I beat them by a good half hour—while they rode with a faraway look in their eyes, I was seeing purple, and it wasn’t just Deva’s new gore-tex.  Terry said it never occurred to him that a birder’s spouse wouldn’t wait for him.  Deva said it never occurred to her we wouldn’t find the tattlers right away.  Hopefully it will never occur to you to chase a rare bird without your spouse right by your side.
Gray-tailed Tattler alternate plumage
Gray-tailed Tattler alternate plumage