Birding in Alaska
From magnificent bald eagles to tiny hummingbirds, nearly 500 species of birds can be found in Alaska. Spring migration brings millions of birds north, ready to take advantage of the long summer days to mate and raise their young while food is plentiful before flying back south for the winter. April, May, and June are the best months to see these travelers passing through or laying claim to summer territories.
Many Alaska communities host birding festivals to celebrate their migratory visitors, or you can take a guided tour with a professional guide who will help you identify rare species to add to your birding bucket list. Watch for raptors soaring in the mountains, shorebirds wading along the coasts, and songbirds calling from the trees. Don't forget about the seabirds: species like cormorants, murres, auklets, kittiwakes, and the clownish, colorful puffin nest in sheer cliffside colonies along Alaska's southern and western coastline. Here’s everything you need to know about birding in Alaska.
Good places to bird watch in Alaska
There’s no shortage of stunning locations to catch a glimpse of Alaska’s birds. Glacier Bay National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park are must-visits for any bird enthusiast. Glacier Bay has roughly 240 different species and Kenai Fjords has about 190, many of which are easily found from early May to mid-September. Meanwhile, the Pribilof Islands have been formally recognized as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge due to their prominence as seabird nesting sites. More than three million seabirds nest on the islands and over 220 species have been reported here, with some coming from as far as South America.
Another prime spot is Denali National Park and Preserve, which boasts 167 species of birds. Although birding dips in the winter months, ptarmigan, gyrfalcon, and goshawks remain in the park when the temperatures drop. Elsewhere, Gambell sits on the northwest of St. Lawrence Island and is home to loons, auklets, murres, and puffins at the start of June. The emperor goose, ruff, cuckoo, and ivory gull have also been spotted here. Nome and the Bering Sea coast is also a popular nesting spot for birds like North American waterfowl. During the summer, the area welcomes roughly 200 migratory bird species to its shores.
Kodiak Island welcomes birds from both land and sea to its rocky terrain. From sparrows, winter wrens, bank swallows, and golden-crowned kinglets, more than 240 bird species visit the archipelago. Eagles are also in the area, alongside seasonal appearances from puffins, kittiwakes, geese, and swans. Adak Island, located in the Aleutian Islands and part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, is also an excellent spot for birding, attracting rare bird species that aren't viewable anywhere else in the United States due to its remote location in the Bering Sea.
Best times to bird
Generally speaking, the best time to bird in Alaska is from late April until mid-September. These summer months are when many birds migrate through to the area or settle here for the season. In the fall, birds tend to leave, however, local birds become more active—which can be a nice surprise for birders who aren’t familiar with Alaska’s native bird species. For rare birds that migrate to western Alaska from Asia, June is ideal to visit. For seabird colonies in the northwest, July is best. Naturally, different species of birds have different seasonal patterns, so if there’s a particular bird you’re hoping to see, check beforehand to confirm when they’re due to be active in Alaska.
If you’re visiting during winter when bird activity is quieter, head to the Alaska Zoo, Alaska Sealife Center, Alaska Raptor Center, the American Bald Eagle Foundation, or Bird Learning and Treatment Center for a guaranteed peek at the feathered beauties.
Types of birds found in Alaska
Alaska is home to an impressive and extensive array of birds including the American robin, chickadees, crossbills, dark-eyed junco, fox sparrow, jays, pine siskin, red-breasted nuthatch, redpolls, and the rufous hummingbird, to name a few. Not to mention, the downy woodpecker, song sparrow, and the European starling are some of the most commonly spotted by birders.
More exotic birds found in Alaska include murres, puffins, dovekies, and black guillemot. Alaska also boasts some of the most elusive species of bird, like the McKay's bunting, that has remained an enigma to scientists until recently because of their isolated home on the islands in the Bering Strait. Ornithologists and dedicated bird watchers alike can find species of birds they have never seen before if they know the right places to look.
Birding Festivals in Alaska
Birding is such a hot commodity in Alaska that the state actually hosts a number of birding festivals throughout the year. In early May, Cordova hosts the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival where the tidal flats of the Delta are bombarded with nearly 5 million shorebirds. The festival celebrates the significance of their migration with scavenger hunts, art exhibits, and group viewings.
Similarly, because of the need for shorebirds to make a pitstop along tidal areas and wetlands, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival takes place in early May in Homer, Alaska. With at least 134 bird species spotted in 2022, this is Alaska’s largest wildlife viewing event. And in April, Ketchikan celebrates the return of the rufous hummingbirds to the Tongass National Forest at the annual Ketchikan Hummingbird Festival. The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center hosts a series of events for the festival including educational and creative events, as well as art exhibits and family activities.
Experience the largest gathering of bald eagles in the country at the Haines Bald Eagle Festival where more than 3,000 bald eagles can be spotted over a 4-mile stretch of the Chilkat River. Be sure to note this event in November, located at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, as it as a rare wildlife phenomenon worth seeing. Celebrate the beginning of the fall migration of the sandhill crane at the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival in Fairbanks. Held the third week of August, this festival hosts speakers, artists, and guides, and features a number of activities and workshops for all ages.
Where to find a guide
While independent birding can be fun, there are a number of organizations and tour operators that provide local guides who can offer in-depth explanations about birds' behaviors and movements, as well as show visitors less accessible locations to see birds. Guides are typically long-time Alaskans that are accustomed to bird patterns and can offer tailored tours according to group size and preferences.
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