Birding in Alaska

Birding in Alaska

Puffin

Canadian Geese

Owl

Loon

Mallard Duck

Copied from an article in WildBird, February 1991.

Alaska is our largest state, encompassing 591,004 square miles. However, it has a population of only about 540,000 people (627,000 in 2000), with almost one-half of the state's population residing in the city of Anchorage. That leaves a lot of space for Alaska's wildlife, including millions and millions of birds.

Alaska is host to 437 species of birds, with new species being reported regularly. The greatest variety of species comes from a few families, including waterfowl (44 species), shorebirds (37 sandpiper and 9 plover species), gulls (17 species), alcids (16 species), birds of prey (16 species), wood warblers (12 species), thrushes (11 species) and owls (10 species).

Alaska claims such exciting species as the Gyrfalcon and Snowy Owl, Tundra Swan and Emperor Goose, Blue Grouse and Willow Ptarmigan, Arctic Tern and Red-legged Kittiwake, Tufted Puffin and Whiskered Auklet, Lesser Golden-plover and Bristle-thighed Curlew, Spectacled Eider and Oldsquaw, Rufous Hummingbird and Varied Thrush, Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspur-along with 419 other birds.

Despite Alaska's size, its northern location offers relatively few life zones. Three zones are recognized: The Canadian zone (characterized by the range of Sitka spruce forests); the Hudsonian zone (which includes the interior valleys and mountain based identified by birch-spruce forests); and the arctic-alpine zone (which extends above the line of tree growth and is characterized by tundra or treeless vegetation).

Within these life zones are diverse habitats ranging from oceanic islands to river deltas, temperate rainforests, deciduous and coniferous woodlands, mountain ranges (including 17 of the 20 tallest mountains in North America), arctic tundra, grassy plains, glaciers, and lakes, rivers and other wetlands host diverse and abundant avifauna that attract birders from all over the world

Perhaps the most visited areas of Alaska are its considerable public lands. There are over 39 million acres of national parkland alone; in addition, there are national wildlife refuges, national preserves, national monument, national forests, state parks and state forests, and more.

 

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 unrestricted development.

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 and signed by, President Jimmy Carter in 1980, devoted over 100 million acres to new parks, monuments, wildlife refuges 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.

Alaska ornithologists 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 companies.

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).

DENALI 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.

YUKON 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 of them!

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.

ARCTIC 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 Hawk nests.

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 Snowy Owls.

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.

CHILKAT VALLEY

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)

GLACIER 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 here.

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.

ALEUTIAN ISLANDS

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 others.

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.

HOMER

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 Wildlife Refuge.

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 and others.

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) 262-7021.

COPPER RIVER DELTA

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 (907) 424-5111.

YUKON 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) 456-0440.

COLVILLE 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.

STIKINE-LECONTE WILDERNESS AREA

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 their young.

The saltwater marshes and grasslands also provide excellent habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, including snow geese and large flocks of shorebirds. The best migration viewing times are April-May and September-October. The forest/alpine/muskeg/riverine environments found throughout the wilderness area draw a large variety of birds; on land, species include the blue grouse, chestnut-backed chickadee, red crossbill, Steller's jay, red-breasted sapsucker, hairy woodpecker, hermit thrush, varied thrush, winter wren, Pacific slope flycatcher, Lincoln's sparrow, and dark-eyed junco. Marine environments harbor the common loon, pigeon guillemot, marbled murrelet, whitewinged scoter, common merganser, mew gull, Bonaparte's gull, bald eagle, belted kingfisher, and northwestern crow. Other birds, such as the Vaux's swift, Sharp-shinned hawk, Red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, American peregrine falcon, Queen Charlotte goshawk, and greater yellowlegs, may be seen in the area. In nearby Petersburg, trumpeter swans can be viewed where they overwinter at Blind Rapids, approximately Mile 18 on Mitkof Highway.

 

Alaska Facts

State Nick Name: "The Last Frontier" - the name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word "Aleyska," meaning "great land."

State Motto: "North to the Future"

State Capital: Juneau, located in the Southeast region of Alaska, has a population of 33,277 (2015 Estimate of Population, Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development)

Alaska Map:

Map of Alaska

Alaska Flag:

Alaska state flag is dark blue with yellow stars in the shape of the big dipper with the North star

NOTE: The State of Alaska is not responsible for the content/information on any site outside of a State of Alaska department.