Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Photo: Jonathan Kingston/Tandemstock.com

Birding the States

Birding in Alaska

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
16 23 119,502,191

Vast Alaska is home to some of the best birding in North America: masses of migrant shorebirds, huge gatherings of Bald Eagles, nesting grounds of waterfowl and shorebirds, seabirds such as shearwaters, guillemots, and puffins—and more.

Famed national parks such as Denali and Kenai Fjords provide gateways to some of the best birding. Though it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the thought of a trip to Alaska—in such an enormous, wild landscape, requiring long travel and logistical preparations, where to begin? Luckily, places such as Cordova with its Copper River Shorebird Festival help visitors find their bearings without having to do all the planning themselves.

Many people take organized tours led by birding companies to visit remote areas such as Gambell Island and the Pribilofs. Such trips can be pricey, but the experiences make them unforgettable.

Alaska's Birding Hot Spots

 

Juneau Mendenhall Wetlands

Adjacent to the Juneau airport, Mendenhall Wetlands offers easy access to excellent habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds, plus an array of other local birds. A one-mile trail can be reached from a parking area at the southern end of Radcliffe Road.

Shorebirds can be common in the wetlands, peaking in May and again in August through September. Many kinds of ducks are common in migration, October through May, and species such as Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Green-winged Teal nest in the area.

In summer, look for Red-throated Loon, Bald Eagle, Bonaparte’s Gull, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Arctic Tern, Vaux’s Swift, Rufous Hummingbird, Alder Flycatcher, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Varied Thrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.

About 25 miles north of the airport, Point Bridget State Park is an excellent birding site with a species list well over 200. Just a few of the highlights here are waterfowl such as Harlequin Duck, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, and Barrow’s Goldeneye, plus Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, and Black-legged Kittiwake. Black Oystercatcher feeds on rocky shores.

Along the trails watch for Sooty Grouse, Northern Goshawk (uncommon), Red-breasted Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Red Crossbill, and White-winged Crossbill.

Glacier Bay National Park

Many visitors to this spectacular national park see it from the decks of cruise ships, but the area has much to offer birders who explore it more intimately. Arrive at the small town of Gustavus by air or ferry, then stay in the national park lodge or accommodations in town, or camp. A ten-mile road links Gustavus to Bartlett Cove, where the park visitor center and lodge are located.

Just south of the airport, the Gustavus Forelands Preserve protects 4,000 acres of woodland, meadows, and beach, with a 2.2-mile loop trail offering access to all these habitats. Less than three miles west is Dude Creek Critical Habitat Area, one of the largest tracts of wet meadow habitat in the region. There are no trails here, but visitors can explore it on their own. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop at these sites in migration, with peak numbers in September.  In woodland and open areas, look for Sooty Grouse, Rufous-hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin. Walkers should be aware of the rules for safety in bear and moose country.

An even easier wildlife-watching experience is to visit the town dock and look out toward the waters of Icy Strait. Many species of migratory waterfowl and loons can be seen in the strait, along with summering Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Pelagic Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, and Caspian Tern. Shorebirds are also common in migration and many remain to nest.

The national park offers a ranger-guided boat tour through Glacier Bay, with the chance to see calving glaciers as well as humpback whales, orcas, and other wildlife. The trip also brings the possibility of birds such as scoters, Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Pelagic Cormorant, Bald Eagle, Black Oystercatcher, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, gulls including Black-legged Kittiwake, and Arctic Tern.

Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve

Does the idea of 25 Bald Eagles perched in one tree seem exciting? How about 3,000 or more gathered along a six-mile stretch of highway? That’s the spectacle that awaits you in fall near Haines. The eagles are drawn here when salmon come up the Chilkat River to spawn and die at their journey’s end. In addition, warm-water upwellings keep part of the river from freezing, creating perfect feeding conditions for the eagles. The result is an incredible concentration—the largest in the world—of Bald Eagles in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, with best viewing between Mile 18 and Mile 22.

In November, eagle fans often come to attend the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, offering field trips, spectacular eagle viewing, and expert lectures.

In summer, the Chilkat Valley is home to dozens of active Bald Eagle nests, offering opportunities to see fledgling eagles taking their first flights. Other warm weather birds here include Trumpeter Swan, Common Merganser, Arctic Tern, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Varied Thrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, and Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Copper River Delta

“Five million shorebirds can’t be wrong” is the slogan of the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, held annually in May in Cordova. The huge wetland and mudflat area is one of the most important habitats for migrant shorebirds in the world. Millions of birds stop here from late April through mid-May, with concentrations of a quarter-million per square mile at times.

Western Sandpiper and Dunlin are the most common shorebirds, but more than 25 species can be seen. Species that nest locally include Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, and Short-billed Dowitcher. The Copper River Delta is also known for nesting Trumpeter Swan and it is the only nesting area for the “dusky” subspecies of Canada Goose. Waterfowl, Sandhill Crane, auks, and gulls highlight spring in the Cordova area. Many iconic Alaska nesting birds are found here, from Bald Eagle and Varied Thrush to Common Redpoll.

Access to Cordova is only by air or ferry. The Chamber of Commerce (www.cordovachamber.com) has information about travel and outdoor activities near the town. The shorebird festival is a great time to visit, with its field trips and expert presentations.

Homer

The town of Homer is a birding hotspot, easily accessible (for Alaska) at the end of the Sterling Highway, 210 miles from Anchorage: “where the road ends and the sea begins,” as folks here say.

An ideal way to explore is during the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival held in May, Alaska’s largest wildlife-viewing festival. The event celebrates the many thousands of shorebirds and other species that can be seen here at the height of spring migration. Just a few of these birds are Common Eider, Harlequin Duck, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Pacific Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Pelagic Cormorant, Bald Eagle, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and Marbled Murrelet.

More than 25 species of shorebirds are often found in May, including Black Oystercatcher, Pacific Golden-Plover, Wandering Tattler, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Rock Sandpiper, and Red-necked Phalarope.

A birding highlight of the area is the Homer Spit, a narrow, four-mile-long peninsula offering good shorebird and seabird viewing along the road.

Stop by the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center for advice about the area, including boat trips to Gull Island, three miles from the tip of the spit. A famed nesting area for birds, it’s home to 15,000 birds. A trip here can bring sightings of Red-faced Cormorant,  Pelagic Cormorant, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Horned Puffin, and Tufted Puffin.

The countryside around Homer is home to many other noteworthy birds, including Spruce Grouse, Sandhill Crane, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Varied Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, and Common Redpoll.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Eighty miles south of Anchorage, Kenai Fjords National Park and the town of Seward make a great birding destination.

The most popular activity is a cruise into Resurrection Bay to look for seabirds. Many companies in Seward offer whale-watching trips, but some also emphasize birding, so ask about the various options. A cruise here can bring sightings of Harlequin Duck, scoters, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Sooty Shearwater, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Bald Eagle, Black Oystercatcher, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Parakeet Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Arctic Tern.

Only one part of Kenai Fjords National Park is accessible by road: the Exit Glacier area. Driving up the 8.6-mile road (usually open between mid-May and mid-November) and exploring trails can bring sightings of Steller’s Jay, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, American Dipper, Northern Waterthrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Fox Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (in the highest areas), and White-winged Crossbill.

Anchorage

Several fine birding sites are located very near downtown Anchorage, providing nature breaks for residents and an introduction to local birdlife for newcomers.

Between downtown and the airport, Westchester Lagoon hosts waterfowl and shorebirds both in migration and in nesting season. A few species to look for in summer are American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Bald Eagle, Sandhill Crane, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Hudsonian Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Arctic Tern.

Trails lead from the lagoon to the shore of Cook Inlet, providing another chance to look for waterbirds. A favored site is the estuary where Fish Creek enters the bay, reached via the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

About 11 miles south, Potter Marsh is an excellent spot with marsh and open water, accessible by a 1,500-foot boardwalk. Look here in migration for Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, Northern Harrier, and Merlin, among many other possible species, and in summer for dabbling ducks, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Sandhill Crane, Arctic Tern, Alder Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush, Rusty Blackbird, and Common Redpoll.

Just six miles northeast of Potter Marsh, the Glen Alps Trailhead at Chugach State Park provides access to alpine birds and other notable species, including Willow Ptarmigan, Rock Ptarmigan, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Northern Wheatear, Townsend's Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and White-winged Crossbill. Chugach is a huge park with many access points and miles of trails to explore.

Denali National Park

The highest mountain in North America, 20,310-foot Denali, looms over this majestic park encompassing more than six million acres of wilderness, where grizzlies, black bears, moose, gray wolves, caribou, Dall sheep, lynx, and wolverines roam. Denali is home to some highly sought-after birds, as well, including all three species of ptarmigan, Long-tailed Jaeger, Northern Hawk-Owl, Gyrfalcon, Northern Shrike, Boreal Chickadee, Arctic Warbler, and Northern Wheatear.

Birding Denali is different from visiting most other national parks. A single 92-mile, dead-end road provides access to the park interior. Because of the volume of visitors and the fragile habitats, private vehicles can drive only the first 15 miles. Buses take visitors beyond that point. By choosing the right type of shuttle bus, birders can get off, walk the road or a trail, and then get back on a bus an hour or two later. (Some tours don’t allow this.)

Here, even more than most places, it’s important to speak to park naturalists for birding advice. Because visitors can’t quickly travel from one spot to another, it’s good to know where, for instance, Gyrfalcons or Arctic Warblers are being seen.

Some spectacular birds can be seen by walking the many miles of the trails near the park entrance, including Horseshoe Lake Trail or the Mount Healy Overlook Trail, and along the 15 miles of road where private vehicles are allowed. Exploring these trails can bring sightings of Trumpeter Swan, Spruce Grouse, Willow Ptarmigan, Golden Eagle, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Varied Thrush, Bohemian Waxwing, Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-winged Crossbill, and Common Redpoll.

Fairbanks

Located on the northern side of Fairbanks, Creamer's Field State Migratory Waterfowl Refuge preserves 2,200 acres of fields, wetlands, and woodland. The property was for decades a dairy farm, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Creamer’s Field is known for waterfowl such as Greater White-fronted Goose, Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, and American Wigeon, and for nesting Sandhill Crane. (An annual Sandhill Crane festival is held in August.) Grebes and shorebirds are among the many migrants that stop over at the refuge in May.

Birds that can be seen in summer here include Solitary Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Mew Gull, Alder Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Common Redpoll.

On the southern side of the city, Tanana Lakes Recreation Area has become a favored location for local birders. A former dumpsite turned into a 750-acre park in 2014, it now has picnic tables and nature trails. Look here for waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls in spring and in summer for Ruffed Grouse, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Rusty Blackbird, and White-winged Crossbill.

Nome

One of North America’s legendary birding destinations, Nome sits on the coast of the Bering Sea, 530 miles northwest of Anchorage. No roads lead to Nome; access is by airplane or boat. Roads lead out of Nome, however, for up to 70 miles in various directions, and much of the birding in the area is done by driving these routes. Roads are generally open from mid-May through October.

Nome is known for birds of the Arctic and for species associated with Asia, less than 200 miles away. Some of the special birds here are Emperor Goose, Steller’s Eider, Spectacled Eider, King Eider, Willow Ptarmigan, Rock Ptarmigan, Red-throated Loon, Arctic Loon, Pacific Loon, Pacific Golden-Plover, Red-necked Stint, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Gyrfalcon, Northern Shrike, Boreal Chickadee, Arctic Warbler, Bluethroat, Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit, Snow Bunting, Common Redpoll, and Hoary Wagtail.

In addition, there are many other species of waterfowl, shorebirds, jaegers, gulls, terns, and other notable species that nest in the area, from Tundra Swan to Rough-legged Hawk to Short-eared Owl to Lapland Longspur.

To alleviate logistical challenges, many birders visit Nome on commercial tours, with guides who know the area. It is possible to visit on your own, though, renting a vehicles and setting out to explore the Teller Road, the Kougarok Road (a place to look for Bristle-thighed Curlew around Mile 72), and the Council Road to and beyond Safety Sound (for waterfowl and seabirds).

Birding Trail

Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail 

Sites on most birding trails are linked mainly by paved roads, but the Inside Passage segment of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Trail offers a special treat because its sites are connected by ferries traveling the Alaska Marine Highway System. In this setting of forested islands and spectacular fjords, stretching from Skagway to Ketchikan, it’s not surprising that water birds provide much of the excitement, with loons, cormorants, ducks, gulls, terns, and others passing in a constant parade. Horned and tufted puffins nest on the islands and fish in the surrounding waters. Pairs of marbled murrelets are everywhere, but their rarer cousins, Kittlitz’s murrelets, are likely to be seen only where huge glaciers come down to the ocean’s edge, as in Glacier Bay National Park. Of course, there are plenty of land birds in this region as well, and nine communities along the trail offer detailed information on birding sites in the forests, rivers, and marshes nearby. Highlights include flocks of migrating sandpipers on the Stikine River near Wrangell, and the world’s largest concentrations of bald eagles, on the Chilkat River near Haines. And you can take non-birding companions along, too, for the chance of spectacular sightings of bears, whales, and other megafauna.
—Kenn Kaufman

Audubon State Office and Centers

×