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Every American should see a bald eagle, the nation's symbol of freedom, at least once. But what if you could see thousands, all at the same time? In Alaska, you can.
If spotting birds is one of your pastimes, Alaska is the place. From the frenetic tufted puffin tucked into a craggy rock in Resurrection Bay to the melancholy call of the rare, bristle-thighed curlew to the thousands of eagles that flock to Haines each November, Alaska is a birder's paradise.
Steve Kendall, bird biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, rates Alaska as premier bird watching territory. Close to 500 species are on record. Kendall says that birders who keep a "life list" can check off more birds in one trip than some do in a lifetime. "It's amazing," he says. "The Aleutians, North Slope, Yukon Delta and Pribilof Islands are home to rare species, and the emperor goose can only be found in Alaska."
Around the same time travelers get the itch to spread their wings and head north to Alaska, millions of birds are following those same instincts. In the late spring, birds from as far as China and Chile have one thing in mind: to get to the land of the midnight sun, and a non-stop salmon buffet.
The never-ending Alaska sun allows for unparalleled birding opportunities. The birds, however, don't always land in the most convenient locations. It might take some planning to make your birding dreams come true, and the following tips will help your trip to the ultimate birding destination take flight.
If shorebirds are your passion, May is the month as several communities in Alaska host festivals to welcome the millions of shorebirds that gather around the state. Among the notables are the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival and the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival.
North from Watson Lake on the Alaska Highway, pause at milepost 699.4. This spot, according to "The Milepost," the top-rated guide to northern highways, marks the Continental Divide. From there, rivers drain either north to the Arctic Ocean or west to the Pacific. Geography can be fun.
Homer is the ultimate end-of-the-road Alaska town. The jewel at the southernmost tip of the Sterling Highway claims glaciers, wildlife, mild weather and then some, including Alaskans who know how to make birders feel welcome. Since 1993, Homer has hosted the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, the premier bird happening in Southcentral Alaska. Birders can choose from custom cruises, tours, guided walks and classes all devoted to birds. More than 100,000 birds feed on a four-mile finger of land called the Homer Spit, allowing birders to see some of the finest specimens in the world without even leaving their cars.
Movement of the tide around the spit creates a feathered mosaic as thousands of birds crowd in and out, and when in flight, for a brief moment a blanket of birds blot out the sun-soaked Alaska sky. Does a bar-tailed godwit just in from the South Pacific strike your fancy? Does your heart race at the sight of thousands of birds in tight formation? There's no place like Homer. Call the Homer Chamber of Commerce at (907) 235-7740 for more information.
The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival is another spectacular gathering place, with up to a quarter million birds per square mile. The glacier-fed river draws birds of all kinds to nest and breed. The dramatic and once-endangered trumpeter swan, snow white with a wing span as wide an eagle's, can be found by the hundreds between the Million Dollar Bridge and Cordova.. Call the Cordova Chamber of Commerce for more information at (907) 424-7260.
St. Paul Island is a wonderful study in contradictions - a lot to see in a little space. The 14 mile long, eight-mile wide island is the largest in the Pribilofs, a group of islands in the Bering Sea that are the tips of a submerged mountain chain. St. Paul is home to the largest population of Native Alaskan Aleuts in the world, as well as one of the largest concentrations of fur seals. Each spring, they share the coast with over two million sea birds that visit St. Paul. For months nesting birds, including the semipalmated plover and red-legged kittiwake, claim every nook and cranny of the 45-mile coast. The best time for a visit is mid-May to August, mid-May to early June to view Asian species. A family style hotel will be your base camp, the place to plan your search for that long-sought bird in incredible Alaska surroundings. If volcanic geology, Native and Russian culture and birds, birds, birds sound interesting, a trip to St. Paul is for you. Tours depart from Anchorage almost every day of the week in season. Call St. Paul Island Tours at 1-877-424-5637 for more information about the tour that's right for you.
Now, about those eagles. Whether you're driving from Anchorage to Homer or Valdez, the shadow of an eagle on the asphalt is almost guaranteed to cross your path. More eagles are found in Alaska than in the rest of the contiguous states combined.
As you drive along the highway north or south out of Anchorage, look into the treetops for a glimpse of a telltale white head as the eagle sits perched on a spruce branch. In downtown Anchorage, a glance skyward might reveal a battle of the wits between an eagle and a raven.
September through late December, Haines is their stompin' grounds as they gather to feed on late-run salmon. Imagine the seven-foot wingspan of the eagle as it dives in on an unsuspecting salmon and carries it away. In 1982, the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was founded to protect the birds. Located just northwest of Haines on the Haines Highway, the heaviest concentrations of bald eagles can be found between Milepost 17 and 22. For more information, contact the Haines Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 530, Haines, AK 99801; (907) 766-2234.
Beyond eagles, other birding possibilities are also ever-present.
A trip out of Bethel by bush plane will transport you to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Western Alaska, where millions of shorebirds and waterfowl gather amidst Native Alaska culture and tundra. For more information, contact the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 346, Bethel, AK, 99559; (907) 543-3151.
On a lighter note - a much lighter note - Ketchikan, in Southeastern Alaska, pays yearly homage to the hummingbird during the Alaska Hummingbird Festival in April. In Southcentral Alaska, a cruise around Prince William Sound or Resurrection Bay affords not only views of glaciers calving and whales exploding out of the water, but also thousands of seabirds: horned and tufted puffins, kittiwakes, auklets, loons, petrels, and of course, eagles.
No matter where you go birding in Alaska, it is essential to consider the elements. Tides are more extreme here. Rain gear and warm clothing should top your packing list; binoculars, camera, field guides and notebooks next.
The Audubon Society has five chapters in Alaska, and here are a few numbers to call to find out the latest bird happenings in specific areas:
Homer: (907) 235-PEEP
Seward: (907) 224-BEAK
Anchorage Audubon Society: (907) 278-3007
In addition to your own resources, check these out:
"Guide to the Birds of Alaska" by Robert Armstrong
"A Birder's Guide to the Kenai Peninsula" by George West
"Field Guide to Birding in Anchorage" by R.L. (Buzz) Scher
"Bird Finding Guide to Alaska" by Nick Lethaby
For Alaska Visitor Information contact: 800 862-5275 or visit http://www.travelalaska.com
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372