Berners Bay is an important marine and estuarine ecosystem bordered by coniferous and deciduous forest and the more open marine waters of Lynn Canal. Glacial rivers running into the head of the bay include the Lace, Antler, and Gilkey, while the clear Berners River also runs into the head of the bay. Cowee Creek, a semi-glacial river, runs into the south end of the bay. Extensive intertidal areas occur at the mouths of these systems. These rivers as well as smaller drainages support Pacific salmon and other fish which contribute to the richness of the area. The area is especially renowned for spring runs of both eulachon and Pacific herring which are preyed upon by large numbers of marine mammals and waterbirds, but the bay also provides a variety of year-round habitats for a number of birds and other wildlife species including those found primarily on rocky coastlines or in the deciduous and coniferous forest edge.

Ornithological Summary

About 200 species of birds have occurred in Berners Bay and uplands, about 2/3 of the 300 bird species recorded in the entire Juneau Area from Taku Inlet to Berners Bay and about 60% of the 335 bird species which have occurred in Southeast Alaska between Dixon Entrance and Yakutat. Berners Bay is of special importance to gulls, waterfowl, and Bald Eagles due to its spring spawning runs of eulachon and Pacific herring. Annual spring concentrations of over 60,000 gulls (King 1991, as cited in Kensington Gold Project Final SEIS, 2005, USDA Forest Service) include a substantial percentage of the world?s breeding population of Thayer?s Gulls which feed heavily before migrating to their breeding colonies in the Canadian Arctic. The world?s breeding population of this species is estimated at no more than 6,300 pairs (Snell, 2002) while counts of Thayer?s Gull concentrations for the bay range up to 12,000 birds (see below). This species is difficult to survey due to its similarity to other species of other pink-footed gulls, often causing it to be overlooked during counts. In general, a large percentage of the spring concentrations of Thayer?s Gulls consist of adult birds. The counts below are generally either for the head of the bay (north end; sources 1-3, 5) or the south end of the bay (source 4) and, thus, underestimate total use. Only the south end of the bay is accessible by road/foot access while the rest of the bay is only readily accessible by boat or aircraft ? making complete surveys of bird use difficult.

Waterfowl in large numbers also regularly concentrate on these spring runs of fish, with Surf Scoter counts up to 20,000 (see below). Given that Surf Scoters have declined seriously from their former abundance (Savard et al. 1998, Kraege et al. 2004), and the present global estimate is 600,000 to one million birds (USFWS, 2004), the numbers observed in Berners Bay surpass the A4i criteria. At least 850 Bald Eagles have been observed concentrating on the eulachon runs at the head of the bay. Pacific herring runs which now occur mainly in Berners Bay were once widespread throughout much of Lynn Canal and Auke Bay so bird populations are even more dependent on this reduced spawning population. Some of the Alaska WatchList species which find productive habitat in the bay and/or associated intertidal areas include Red-throated and Yellow-billed Loons, Trumpeter Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Long-tailed Duck, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Dunlin, and Marbled Murrelet. Although these species have not been surveyed in numbers significant on a flyway basis, the generally unaltered habitat around the bay is excellent for these species. For example, a feeding melee of 1,500 Marbled Murrelets was observed on July 20, 2005 (source 4) on the south end of the bay.

Snell, R. R. 2002. Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) and Thayer?s Gull (Larus thayeri). In The Birds of North America, No. 699 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Savard, J-P. L., D. Bordage, and A. Reed. 1998. Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspillata). The Birds of North America 363 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc. Philadelphia PA.

Kraege, D., D. Nysewander, and J. Evenson. 2004. Determination of breeding area, migration routes, and local movements associated with Surf and White-winged Scoters wintering in the inner marine waters of Washington State. Sea Duck Joint Venture Annual Project Summary (Project #28).

USFWS. 2004. Sea Duck Information Series. 1011 East Tudor Road, Anchorage, Alaska 99603

Conservation Issues

The highest threats to bird use are directly linked to any threats which result in reduction or elimination of eulachon or Pacific herring runs in the bay and its rivers. Road, port, and mine construction and operation and associated pollution due to oil spills or other releases of chemicals pose the largest threats. Direct disturbance due to increased human activities such as boating or overfishing also pose a threat, while natural succession such as post glacial uplift and habitat change also pose long term threats.

Ownership

All of Berners Bay up to the mean high tide line is owned by the State of Alaska. Uplands are primarily owned by the Federal Government and managed as National Forest by the U.S. Forest Service. Portions of the uplands are also owned by the state (Point Bridget State Park), native corporations (Goldbelt and Sealaska), and private owners including Echo Ranch Bible Camp.

Habitat

The Berners Bay waters and tide lands are an important marine ecosystem in Southeast Alaska. It is widely acknowledged to be one of the key spring migratory waterfowl and gull stopover locations in coastal Alaska. Berners Bay includes all waters and intertidal lands between the forests on the mainland to the north, east, and south and the mouth of the bay in the west bordered by a line from Bridget Point State Park to Point Saint Mary. Within these boundaries are productive marine waters while the intertidal and adjacent areas include small groves of alder and spruce and supratidal meadows also known as uplift sedge meadows important for shorebirds and other open country species. Sparrows and warblers nest in these meadows and adjacent wooded areas in fairly large numbers. Below the uplift meadow areas are limited areas of salt marsh. The bay has about 18 miles of rocky shoreline and 26 miles of shoreline with sandy or silt substrate.

Land Use

Most of Berners Bay consists of open marine waters used for commercial, subsistence, and recreational fishing, sightseeing, tourism, and recreational boating. Intertidal areas and the adjacent supra-tidal areas include a state park, bible camp, national forest, and private lands owned by a native corporation which are currently generally undeveloped. A road is being constructed along the lower portion of the bay and a planned road may circumnavigate the entire mainland portion of the bay. A hard-rock gold mine is currently under construction near the northwest corner of the bay and a ferry will transport workers to the mine by crossing the bay.