Spotlight 49: Wildlife viewing in Alaska
If a rare bird encounter sends you reaching for your camera and the thought of sharing a beach with a group of hungry grizzly bears makes you giddy, you may want to consider planning your next vacation to Alaska. A paradise for birders, wildlife photographers, nature enthusiasts or any traveling animal lover, Alaska offers year-round opportunities for fantastic wildlife viewing – both on and offshore and for any ability level. Many of the state’s resident creatures such as moose, brown and black bear, and more than 500 different bird species share their habitats with humans near towns and cities. It’s not uncommon to see traffic halted on a roadway due to a moose sighting in the distance, or Dall sheep perched on a nearby cliff. The rail belt traveling through Southcentral and Interior Alaska offers visitors easy access to some of the most wildlife-rich spots in the state. Among the most traveled options is a bus trip down the 90-mile road leading into the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve, with frequent stops to view and photograph moose, bear, wolves, caribou, fox, wolverine and more.
The city of Seward is one of several of Alaska’s coastal gems where visitors can board a whale watching tour or see wildlife from a hike or kayak expedition. While whales are often the focus of the wildlife viewing boat tours, there is a diverse population of other — just as fascinating — marine mammals and seabirds to be seen in the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park. Expect to spot sea lions vegetating on the rocks of a nearby island; sea otters sharing fresh salmon with their offspring; puffins diving deep into the water in search of fish; or Dall’s porpoises racing alongside your speeding Catamaran. A sophisticated sonar system onboard the boats and cooperative communication among vessels practically guarantees your captain will lead you to at least one humpback whale or orca sighting, and more often than not, these glorious creatures will breech close enough to the boat to snap a magazine-worthy photo.
Alaska is also known for world-class bear viewing. In the summer and fall, before hibernating for the winter, grizzly bears flock to the waterways of Katmai National Park and Preserve to feast on a nonstop salmon buffet. Similarly, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is known for its own high concentration of brown bears. Both parks are accessed by air taxi services out of Anchorage, Homer, Kenai and other surrounding communities. But it’s Southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island, known as Fortress of the Bear that is thought to house the largest concentration of brown bears, with an estimated 1,600 brown bears in the 956,155-acre wilderness area. The 1.9-million-acre Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on Kodiak Island is the stronghold of the Kodiak brown bear. These unique subspecies of the brown bear or grizzly bear are the largest land carnivore in the world, weighing up to 1,500 pounds.
Alaska’s diverse habitats draw hundreds of bird species, including some rare visitors like the red-throated loon and blue-winged teal. Bird-viewing spots are scattered all around the state as far north as the tip-top of the state, Barrow, America’s northernmost city, and all along the 1,200-mile Aleutian Islands. Potter Marsh, just minutes south of Anchorage, is a prime bird-watching spot. During the spring and summer months, throngs of amateur and professional bird-photographers walk the boardwalks with their high-zoom lens and binoculars snapping photos of Canada geese, northern pintails, canvasback ducks, trumpeter swans, shorebirds and many others. The Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks conducts extensive research into bird species and their habitats, is open to visitors year-round and hosts birding events around town and at the center. Alaska’s Aleutian Island, Attu, played a prominent role in the 2011 movie, “Big Year,” as characters on a mission to see the most birds in a year travel to the island in search of some rare species. A little closer to the mainland, St. Paul Island in Southwest Alaska is home to over 248 species of birds, including many rarities such as the Siberian vagrant. Across the state, near Alaska’s southeast city of Haines, the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world land on the shores of the Chilkat River each fall. Visitors can celebrate these glorious, regal birds at the Bald Eagle Festival each November, in Haines.
Wildlife viewing isn’t just limited to the summer months. The fall and winter wildlife residents are a unique set of animals that many people will never get to see outside of a zoo or on a television screen. Far North Alaska, past the Arctic Circle, lay the communities of Barrow and Kaktovik. The latter is a small island with a population of just under 300, and a seasonal population of polar bears, feasting on the whale remains left over from the subsistence whaling season. In Barrow, several tour operators will drive visitors to the whale remains where they can spend several hours around these deceivingly cute creatures. A new tour flies visitors from Anchorage to Kaktovik for the day and takes them out by boat and vehicle to witness the bears in action. The Northwest communities of Nome and Kotzebue offer the chance to see herds of musk oxen and reindeer graze within sight of the road as well as bear, moose, fox, wolves, birds and other Arctic animals. Herds of caribou also migrate through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge each spring and fall, presenting a breathtaking opportunity to witness these creatures from the air, ground or on a river float trip.
For more information on viewing wildlife throughout Alaska, click here.