Most of Alaska lands
remain primeval bush country that few people know
intimately. Travel is not simple, and bush plane
travel is the norm for visiting many remote areas.
Some prime birding locations are next to impossible
to visit due to lack of facilities, and remain "paper
preserves" that have been set aside for their
unique qualities and to protect them from future
Until Alaska became
a state, 99 percent of the land was owned by the
government of the United States. In 1959, 104.6
million acres were transferred to the state for
a total of 375 million acres. Forty-four million
acres were also passed to the Native Inuit (Eskimos),
Aleuts and Indians.
The Alaska National
Interest Lands Conservation Act, passed by Congress
by, President Jimmy Carter in 1980, devoted over
100 million acres to new parks, monuments, wildlife
and national forests.
Alaska represents the
northern limit for many widespread species of birds
from the Great Horned Owl to the Savannah Sparrow. While
shorebirds are plentiful, wading birds are rare-only
the Great Blue Heron ranges into southcentral Alaska.
Few species winter in Alaska; most are found here only
during migration or the summer breeding season.
The birds of Alaska are
tied to the seasons of Alaska. While the bountiful Alaska
summer provides resources for multitudes of breeding
birds, the harsh winter flushes most birds from the
frigid lands. Spring and fall migrations bring spectacular
concentrations of birds to this region.
Spring migration begins
in early April and continues through early June with
a peak of migration activity in May. Fall migration
begins in late June, when some no-breeding sandpipers
begin to return south from the arctic, while some gulls
continue migrating through early December. However,
most fall migrations take place in August and September.
Four principle migration
routes are recognized in Alaska: the interior, coastal,
Pacific, and Siberian routes. The interior migration
route funnels raptors, some waterfowl, Sandhill Cranes,
swallows, flycatchers and songbirds into the four principle
North American migration routes.
The coastal migration
route roughly follows the coastline and is used by many
waterfowl, shorebirds and some songbirds. The Pacific
migration route is used by birds wintering in South
America and South Pacific Islands. The Siberian route
is used by a few birds that winter in Asia, but breed
in Alaska, like the Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Bar-tailed
Godwit and Yellow Wagtail.
admit that they are still at the frontier of ornithology
in the state. While birdlife is plentiful, concentrations
that take place at migration, breeding or wintering
locations are seasonal. After all, Alaska has over 34,000
miles of coastline. Counting the Aleutian and Alexander
archipelagos, the state covers 69 degrees of longitude
and 20 degrees of latitude. New species are turning
up all the time; in fact, new nesting [areas] and waterfowl
colonies are discovered regularly.
Many of the hottest birding
posts are remote and require advance planning and roughing
it in the bush. If your time is limited or if you seek
professional assistance, contact a professional guide
service. Some national and international tour companies
specialize in birding tours to Alaska, as do local tour
If you are considering
a trip to America's last frontier, here is a primer
for birding in Alaska's public lands. Although many,
of Alaska's geographic locations have hard-to-pronounce
names, owing to their Native origins, the names add
a certain mystique to Alaska's birding hotspots.
Some Locations have been
selected for their significance to bird populations
(for instance, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge);
others were selected because they are easily visited
by using existing tour facilities (for instance, Glacier
Bay National Park).
PARK NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE
Denali National Park is
a destination for many people touring Alaska. Birders
will find a variety of birds ranging from Rock and Willow
Ptarmigan to Golden Eagles, Merlins, Gray Jays, White-crowned
Sparrows, Boreal Chickadees, Northern Wheatears Long-tailed
Jaegers, Arctic Terns, Common Loons and Harlequin Ducks.
Contact Denali National Park, PO Box 9, Denali Park
AK 99755; telephone (907) 683-2294.
DELTA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The Yukon Delta National
Wildlife Refuge encompasses 19.6 million acres, making
it the largest of all refuges in the United States.
The refuge protects the area where the Yukon and Kuskokwim
Rivers meet the sea in broad, flat delta plains. This
immense wetland mosaic is perhaps the most important
single nesting area for waterfowl and shorebirds.
Estimates of 100 million
shorebirds and waterfowl have been tallied, including
two million ducks and three-quarters of a million geese
and Tundra Swans. This is the most important area for
nesting geese in Alaska. Over 80 percent of the world's
population of Emperor Geese nest here, along with White-fronted
Geese, Brant and Cackling Canada Geese. Other birds
of special interest include Yellow Wagtails, Lapland
Longspurs, Lesser Sandhill Cranes, four species of Eiders,
Oldsquaws, Western Sandpipers, Dunlins, Semipalmated
Sandpipers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Black-bellied Plovers,
Long-billed Dowitchers, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes
and an array of other ducks and shorebirds-100 million
The delta is hard to explore;
there are no facilities for lodging and you will need
a float plane or an Eskimo guide with a skiff to get
around in this water wonderland. Contact Delta National
Wildlife Refuge, PO Box 346, Bethel, AK 99559-0346;
telephone (907) 543-3151.
NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge is the most northern refuge where the Beaufort
Sea coastline is separated from the Brooks Mountains
Range by only 20 miles of tundra. Birdlife is spectacular
and abundant; 140 species frequent the refuge including
Pacific, Red-throated and Common Loons, Bluethroats,
Snowy Owls, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Gray-tailed Tattlers,
Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, the three jaeger species,
all four eider species, Oldsquaws, Green-winged Teal,
Northern Pintails Canada Geese, Brant, Tundra Swans
and Sandhill Cranes.
Fall migration begins
in July with concentrations of shorebirds and massive
numbers of Oldsquaws gathering here. This is also
an important staging area for Snow Geese in September.
The best time to visit
the high Arctic is May to September; June through August
is best because the summer season is short. Contact:
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Federal Building and
Courthouse, 101-12 Avenue, Box 20, Fairbanks, AK 99701
telephone (907) 456-0250. Also the private tour company:
Wilderness Birding Adventures, PO Box 10-3747, Anchorage,
AK 99510-3747; telephone (907) 694-7442.
The rocky ledges of the
Colville River host the largest population of nesting
arctic falcons in Alaska, with about 40 Peregrin Falcon
and 15 Gyrfalcon eyries here and about 230 Rough-legged
The Colville River Delta
consists of arctic tundra and delta habitats with nesting
Red-throated Loons, Tundra Swans, Red breasted Mergansers,
King and Common eiders, Oldsquaws, Sandhill Cranes and
The Colville River is
not easily seen without professional guide services.
Contact. Wilderness Birding Adventures, PO Box 103747,
Anchorage, AK 99510-3747; telephone (907) 694-7442.
From September through
March the Chilkat River Valley north of the city of
Haines attracts up to 3500 Bald Eagles. Other birds
in the area include Trumpeter Swans, Barrow's Goldeneyes,
Oldsquaw, scoters and Northern Dippers. This area is
easily accessible from Haines and is a must stop for
birders and non-birders alike.
If you continue up the
Haines Highway about 60 miles north of Haines, you will
find wintering groups of Rock and Willow Ptarmigan numbering
in the hundreds. In addition, the ptarmigan attract
Gyrfalcons, making it well worth the extra drive. This
location is near the Chilkat Pass in British Columbia
and extends from mile 55 to mile 75 north of Haines.
(Contact Haines Visitor's Bureau, PO Box 518, Haines,
AK 99827; telephone (907) 766-2234)
BAY NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE
Most people travel to
Glacier Bay to see the spectacular scenery with mountains,
ocean and glaciers combining to form awe-inspiring landscapes.
However, over 200 species of birds have been reported
Many birders take a cruise
to the Marble Islands rookeries where you can see nesting
Glaucous-winged Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted
and Horned Puffins, Common Murres and Pigeon Guillemots.
Other seabirds and waterfowl are also present
In the forests of the
national park you may see Chestnut-backed Chickadees,
Rosy Finches, Common Redpolls, Fox Sparrows, Varied
Thrushes, Common Ravens, Blue Grouse, Bald Eagles and
other raptors. Contact Glacier Bay National Park an
Preserve, Gustavus, AK 99826; telephone (907) 697-2231.
Most of the Aleutian Island
chain is contained in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife
Refuge's Aleutian Islands Unit. Many, species of alcids
and other seabirds nest in colonies on islands or rocks,
including Tufted and Horned puffins, Red-legged Kittiwakes,
Parakeet, Least, Crested and Whiskered auklets, and
The Aleutian Islands possess
some of the most diverse birdlife in Alaska. The Aleutian
Tern and Red-legged Kittiwake nest here, as does the
Aleutian Canada Goose, an endangered bird.
These islands also provide
wintering habitat for many birds including Emperor Geese,
Brant, Steller's Eiders, Oldsquaw Greater Scaup, Glaucous
Gulls and a variety of seabirds. Many of the records
of rare, vagrant or accidental species that have been
recorded in North America are from the Aleutian Islands.
Visiting the Aleutians
is complicated and military clearance is required to
visit Adak Amchitka, Attu and Shemya Islands. However,
Attour, a private touring company, provides birding
tours to Attu Island. Contacts: Aleutian Islands Unit,
Bo 52512, FPO Seattle, WA 98791; telephone (907) 592-2406.
Also the private tour company: Attour, 2027 Partridge
Lane, Highland Park IL 60036; telephone (708) 831-7207.
The city of Homer is located
on the Kenai Peninsula about 225 miles southwest of
Anchorage. The Homer area offers three distinct birding
opportunities: sea bird nesting colonies on offshore
islands, the Homer spit on Cook Inlet and Katmai National
Charter birding cruises
to Gull Island provide an opportunity to see nesting
seabirds including Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Common
Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Red-faced Cormorants
The Homer spit, a flat
sand and gravel bar that juts into Cook Islet, offers
good birding, especially during migration period Surfbirds,
Western Sandpipers, Ruddy and Black turn-stones, Dunlin,
Red-necked Phalaropes, Common Eiders, White-winged,
Black and Surf scoters and the occasional Bald Eagle
are among the many birds that may be seen.
Kenai National Wildlife
Refuge offers another birding opportunity on the Kenai
Peninsula with a diversity of habitats ranging from
mountains to tundra, forests and wetlands. Contact Rainbow
Charters and Tours, Homer, AK 99603; telephone (907)
235-7272. Katchemak Bay Ferry, 6140 Halibut Cove, Homer,
AK 99603; telephone (907) 296-2223. Kenai National Wildlife
Refuge, PO Box 2139 Soldotna, AK 99669; telephone (907)
The Copper River Delta,
which is 60 miles wide and extends 15 miles inland,
is inundated by shallow waters interspersed wit lagoons,
islands and mudflats. This area has the largest nesting
colony of Glaucous-winged Gulls; along with Aleutian
and Arctic tern nesting colonies, Bald Eagles, Northern
Hawk Owls and Chestnut-backed Chickadees nest in bordering
timbered areas and barrier islands, and Dusky Canada
Geese and Trumpeter Swans nest in the delta wetlands.
The Copper River Delta
is a very important area for migrating shore-birds,
jaegers and loons. Virtually all the Western Sandpipers
and Pacific Dunlins that nest in western Alaska pass
through this important stopover area.
This delta is the most
northern ice-free area in winter, so many hardy species
brave the icy waters here, including Oldsquaw' three
species of scoters, Greater Scaup, Buffleheads, Mallards,
Northern Pintails and Trumpeter Swans. Peregrine Falcons
can be seen throughout the year, attracted by the shorebirds
and small waterfowl they hunt. In nearby Cordova, which
is located on the edge of Prince William Sound, the
annual Christmas Bird Count records up to 80 species
some years, the most species in Alaska.
To visit the Copper River
Delta you can fly into Cordova from Anchorage. Contact
Goose Cove Lodge, PO Box 325, Cordova AK 99574; telephone
FLATS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
This is a huge refuge
that includes over 10 million acres of wetlands created
where the Yukon River spreads out over a 200-mile stretch
of flood-plain. Millions of migrating birds arrive here
each spring to use the flats as a resting location before
continuing to their breeding areas.
The Yukon Flats is noted
as one of the most densely populated duck nesting regions
in North America. Over two million duck that migrate
through each of the four major North American flyways
are produced in the area in good nesting years. In addition
to ducks, some Canada Geese and White-fronted Geese
also nest here.
The Yukon Flats is an
important fall staging area for waterfowl and Sandhill
Cranes. About 200,000 Sandhills from breeding grounds
in western Alaska, eastern Siberia and the Yukon Territory
congregate in the Yukon Flats wetlands before they begin
their southern migration along the Central Flyway.
There are two airline
flights daily from Fairbanks to Fort Yukon, but you
will want to make advance arrangements for lodging and
transportation in the area. Contact Yukon Flats National
Wildlife Refuge, Federal Building and Courthouse, 101-12
Avenue, PO Box 20, Fairbanks, AK 99701; telephone (907)
RIVER AND DELTA
The Colville River is
one of the most northern of Alaska's wild rivers. It
forms an extensive river delta where it empties into
the Beaufort Sea west of Prudhoe Bay. The river and
surrounding mountain areas are home to the three ptarmigan
species, all three jaegers, Sabine's Gulls, Bluethroats,
Northern Wheatear, Yellow Wagtails, Hoary Redpolls,
Canada Geese, Brant Geese, Common Ravens, Rough-legged
Hawks, and most spectacular of all, Peregrines and Gyrfalcons.
The 448,841 acre Stikine-Leconte
Wilderness Area is located on the mainland seven miles
east of Petersburg and eight miles north of Wrangell
in Southeast Alaska. It surrounds the silty Stikine
River and its tributaries that flow from British Columbia,
Canada. Narrow valleys are surrounded by steep mountains
lush with spruce and hemlock forests and capped with
alpine vegetation. Further inland, where precipitation
diminishes, cottonwoods and alders dominate the valley
floor. The delta area provides habitat for multitudes
of spawning eulachon and this seasonal abundance of
fish draws the largest springtime concentration of bald
eagles in North America. Large nests line the valley
floor where birdwatchers can often watch adults feeding
The saltwater marshes
and grasslands also provide excellent habitat
migrating along the Pacific Flyway, including snow
geese and large flocks of shorebirds. The best
times are April-May and September-October. The forest/alpine/muskeg/riverine
environments found throughout the wilderness area
a large variety of birds; on land, species include
the blue grouse, chestnut-backed chickadee, red
Steller's jay, red-breasted sapsucker, hairy woodpecker,
hermit thrush, varied thrush, winter wren, Pacific
flycatcher, Lincoln's sparrow, and dark-eyed junco.
Marine environments harbor the common loon, pigeon
marbled murrelet, whitewinged scoter, common merganser,
mew gull, Bonaparte's gull, bald eagle, belted kingfisher,
and northwestern crow. Other birds, such as the
swift, Sharp-shinned hawk, Red-tailed hawk, great
blue heron, American peregrine falcon, Queen Charlotte
and greater yellowlegs, may be seen in the area.
In nearby Petersburg, trumpeter swans can be viewed
they overwinter at Blind Rapids, approximately Mile
18 on Mitkof Highway.