Alaska bird behavior intrigues

Gulls form a white edge on the beach at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, in early October on a rare sunny day. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Nov. 10, 2019, “Alaskan bird behavior intrigues birdwatchers.”

By Barb Gorges

            Our family lost its guide to Alaska in October. My husband Mark’s brother Peter, a Catholic priest in southeast Alaska for 51 years, died at age 84.

            Peter was an inveterate explorer, from his days growing up in the Bronx a block from 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park—larger than Central Park—to voluntarily relocating to Alaska. His extensive foreign travels with parishioners took him many places the last 20 years.

            Whenever we visited, Peter was our tour guide: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haynes, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Homer (search “Alaska” at Like his father and three brothers, he was a fisherman and camped and hiked. But he also was interested in botany and Native cultures. He didn’t just reside in Alaska. He knew the state’s history, political and natural.

            Peter became more interested in birds after he retired. It’s hard to ignore them in southeast Alaska. For instance, Sitka Sound, opening onto the Pacific, has an abundance of gulls, ravens and bald eagles that mingle with Sitka townsfolk and summer cruise ship visitors.

            Spend time among ravens that walk within ten feet of you unafraid and you will never mistake a crow for a raven again: enormous bills, bushy cowls of neck feathers, bouncy landings, deep croaking voices. And you know they are staring at you, calculating if you might share food.

            One raven I met after the memorial mass for Peter accompanied me to the Sitka National Historical Park parking lot. It chose a dark blue car and fussed at its door, all the while looking over at me hoping I had a key to food inside.

            I’ve been reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s book, “Gifts of the Crow.” Marzluff’s study on the University of Washington campus revealed that crows remembered the faces of researchers that captured and banded them and mobbed them whenever they saw the researchers again. Luckily, the researchers wore masks. The original crows taught subsequent generations to recognize the masks.

            Crows have many human-like behaviors because their brains operate in ways very similar to ours. The book is full of technical explanations. Crows especially, and the other corvids to some degree, jays, ravens and magpies, have developed a relationship with people. The local indigenous people, the Tlingit, divide their clans into two groups, Raven and Eagle/Wolf (there’s a north-south divide for the second group).

            Because ravens and crows do not have bills strong enough to break the skin of other animals, they are known to lead predators, including hunters, to prey and then feast on the leftovers.

            Perhaps the parking lot raven updated the tradition, finding park visitors have food. I think all the other cars in the lot were white National Park Service vehicles because the visitor center was closed. And you know that the agency forbids feeding wildlife in its parks, so that’s why the raven chose a blue car. And maybe it picks out people who aren’t wearing park service uniforms.

            Southeast Alaska is not particularly cold, but it is darker in winter than the lower 48, and much rainier, so everyone has enormous windows to maximize natural light. From Peter’s rooms at the rectory he had a panoramic view of Crescent Bay and its resident bald eagles.

The pilings by the breakwater on Crescent Bay are a favorite perch for Sitka, Alaska, bald eagles. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Sitka’s bald eagles are not as chummy as its ravens, but they have their favorite perches around town. One is a piling outside the marina breakwater. On our last day, Mark and I walked the waterfront out far enough to look back at the rocky structure and I caught a glimpse of something in the distance swimming towards it.

            Neither of us had binoculars, if you can believe it. Mark didn’t have his camera with the zoom lens either. I have better than 20/20 distance vision but still, all I could tell was some brown animal was swimming. But it wasn’t a consistent movement forward like the usual animal paddling. More like the jerkiness of the breaststroke.

            Then there was a flash of white. Hmm, maybe a bald eagle? Have you seen any of the online videos of bald eagles catching fish too heavy to fly to land and instead swimming, using their wings like oars on a rowboat?

            We waited and sure enough, the brown animal climbed onto the rocks and it became an eagle, white head and tail visible—but not what it beached. At least one raven flew over to inspect it. I wonder if Peter ever observed this behavior.

            I don’t think this will be our last trip to Alaska, now that two generations of our family reside nearby in Seattle. But we will have to find a new guide—or do more homework.

Fairbanks, Alaska, celebrates birds

Creamers Field boardwalk

Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge has a boardwalk through the forested area. The permafrost causes trees to tilt. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 5, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A refuge for birds in Alaska.”

2014 Update: Fairbanks advertises unusual winter-time tourist activities, but the birding wouldn’t be so interesting.

By Barb Gorges

Heading north in August runs counter to bird migration.

However, Mark and I enjoyed our trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

The city reminded me of Gillette, Wyo., home of hardworking pickup trucks, but with a sprinkling of white Princess Cruises tour buses and spruce trees in undeveloped areas instead of sagebrush.

Fairbanks has the patina of culture and academia thanks to the University of Alaska, but it is also the supply point for folks heading into the bush. There is a pond at the airport with a flotilla of float planes at anchor.

The city population is about 30,000, three-fifths of Cheyenne’s. The Fairbanks borough has 87,000 people spread over 7,631 square miles, compared to here in Laramie County which has 81,000 people in 2688 square miles.

With all that space available, there was a lot of local support for the state to establish Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, expanded now to nearly 3000 acres on the edge of the city.

Creamer’s Field was a dairy farm from 1915 until the 1960’s. Now it is known for the annual Sandhill Crane Festival at the end of August, which celebrates the peak of crane and Canada goose migration. We visited too early to take part.

Mark and I, and Mark’s brother, Peter, joining us from Sitka, Alaska, opted for the free, daily, naturalist-led hike across a corner of the old pasture and into the forest. It was a quick way to learn the basics of the local ecology.

Interior Alaska is part of the boreal forest that stretches across Canada and into the northern Midwest and New England. Our guide, an Alaska Fish and Game biologist, said there are only six tree species in this part of the boreal forest: balsam poplar, aspen, paper birch, white spruce, black spruce and tamarack. The numerous willows and alders don’t count.

Permafrost is a building nightmare if you don’t keep it cold. In the forest it naturally creates six-sided potholes and tipsy-looking trees. The refuge has to rebuild the board walk along the boggy parts of the nature trail every few years.

It was too late in the morning for much bird activity in the woods, but in the field was a pond full of ducks that got buzzed by a peregrine falcon.

An offshoot of Creamer’s Field is the Alaska Bird Observatory. It has a permanent banding station, banding every suitable day April until October.

The mist nets are along a nature trail and identified with permanent signs. The station is a semi-permanent tent with steel arches and a plywood floor. There are three processing tables and a crew of employees, interns, college students and volunteers, including children under the tutelage of mentors.

While we visited Aug. 14, an American tree sparrow was the first of its species to be banded in the fall migration already underway. However, it is a migratory bird for Fairbanks rather than a winter bird as it is for us in Cheyenne.

On the board listed as the cool birds of the week were many warblers we see in Cheyenne during migration including yellow-rumped, orange-crowned, Wilson’s and Townsend’s.

The two coolest birds to be banded the week we were there were slightly off-course Arctic warblers. In 16 years these were only the 20th and 21st the ABO had banded. We’re unlikely to see them in Wyoming as they nest in the Arctic and winter in the Philippines!

However, Wyoming does share two famous naturalists and conservationists with Alaska, Mardy and Olaus Murie. They were mentioned more than once in various museums. Several gift shops carried Mardy’s book, “Two in the Far North,” which chronicles her early life in Fairbanks and the couple’s research in the Arctic beginning in the 1920’s. They later made their home in Moose, Wyo.

My list of bird sightings includes two willow ptarmigan—but they might have been rock ptarmigan. They were on the side of the road on the tundra at Denali National Park and Preserve. We also saw five grizzlies, numerous caribou and Dall sheep.

Even though we couldn’t leave the shuttle bus between official stops, our driver didn’t hesitate to make pauses for wildlife photography out the windows.

In Fairbanks, over at Pioneer Park, we saw something unexpected. Instead of begging mallards swimming in the pond at the re-creation of a gold mining sluice, we saw American wigeon. They haven’t learned to beg yet, but they weren’t too shy either.

Our last evening in Fairbanks, I stood out in the driveway of the bed and breakfast about 10 p.m. to admire the blue sky above, and to watch a large V of Canada geese coming from the other side of the Chena River, winging south.

The commentator on the Riverboat Discovery cruise had said that by Halloween Fairbanks would be dark early and the Chena would be frozen solid enough to become a landing strip for small planes equipped with skis.

Because Fairbanks’ high latitude produces extremely long days of summer sunshine, 45 pound cabbages, incredible flower gardens and lots of food for insectivorous birds, I think migration is a great strategy.

However, the chickadees, ravens and gray jays tough out the minus 45-degree winter temperatures, just like the remarkable people we met who choose to live in interior Alaska.

Creamers Field

Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Pacific coast birding down, Atlantic coast yet to go

Cape May lighthouse

The Cape May lighthouse marks the location of the Cape May Bird Observatory hawk watching platform.

Published Sept. 30, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pacific coast down, Atlantic coast yet to go.”

2014 Update: I’ve been fortunate to travel to Cape May in the fall two more times since, but never quite at the peak.

By Barb Gorges

By the time you read this I’ll be back from the East Coast.

Only once before have I made it ocean to ocean in one year. That year I started out in spring as a naturalist-in-training on Staten Island, N.Y., then spent the summer in Wyoming as a soils tech in Rock Springs, and when the field season finished, drove up to Seattle to visit my aunt and uncle.

These same relatives now live in Philadelphia, the destination of this latest trip. My sister and I had asked our mother where we could take her to celebrate her 70th birthday and she chose her brother’s.

Since I travel these days with an eye for the birds, it didn’t take long for the realization (perhaps it was with help from Aunt Pat) that Cape May, N.J., is only two hours south of Philly. Don’t you just love the miniature geography back east? People measure travel by hours rather than miles because of the traffic congestion. If the East Coast had Wyoming’s unimpeded highways, most of it would be within a day’s drive of Philadelphia.

Cape May is a Mecca for observing migration. Located on the southern tip of New Jersey, it is a natural stopping place for birds during both spring and fall. Capitalizing on this, the Cape May Bird Observatory was established in 1975 to count the birds. In addition to research and conservation projects, it has extensive education and recreational birding programs.

Judging by the CMBO’s advertising in birding magazines for its seasonal festivals, I would gather the height of spring migration is mid-May and in the fall it’s Oct. 29-31. Rats.

Our trip to Sitka, Alaska, in August was on the late side of migration up there, and September at Cape May will be on the early side. Someday I may be lucky enough to travel to bird and slip in visits to nearby relatives, rather than the other way around.

As far as I’m concerned, except for Cape May, the itinerary is totally up to Mom. From the looks of my Internet search, the 16 antique stores should provide her plenty of entertainment anyway.

Cape May is apparently full of quaint Victorian-era architecture and is preserved intact as a National Historic Landmark City. Of course local businesses capitalize on the fact. In addition, the local entrepreneurs have always encouraged their reputation as a seaside resort—for the last couple hundred years.

Though Southeast Alaska has been a destination for adventurous vacationers since the late 19th century, it seems only since the closing of its pulp mill over 10 years ago has Sitka gotten more serious about the tourism industry.

When we visited the Alaska Raptor Center, we were astounded by the $12 per person entrance fee, and the new million-dollar visitor-office-rehabilitation facility with permanent staff of five and hundreds of volunteers. It’s a far cry from Lois and Frank Layton’s new but just as effective pole building flight barn outside Casper.

By the way, congratulations to Lois and Frank for being in the first group, including Curt Gowdy and Olaus and Mardy Murie, inducted into the Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming’s Outdoor Hall of Fame earlier this month. The Laytons were honored for their 45-year commitment to bird rehabilitation.

At the ARC we joined a group of 50 or 60 cruise ship passengers bused in for a tour of the facility and a presentation with a resident, permanently injured, bald eagle. Then we were shepherded towards the gift shop.

Busload after busload all summer long gives the place a commercial air. At least the entrance fees help pay for the grand facility to accommodate so many visitors as well as public education and rehab of birds.

For a family like ours, familiar with facilities in Cheyenne, Casper, Laramie and Ft. Collins, it seemed like overkill. But perhaps for the majority of the visitors, it was their first exposure. One should never discount the influence of 30 minute tours on the future welfare of wildlife.

The Cape May Bird Observatory, conveniently located in another tourist destination, may be similar. Operated by New Jersey Audubon (not affiliated with and predating establishment of the National Audubon Society), it does have a gift shop, according to the Web site I just hope that at the end of the summer season they still have t-shirts my size.

In the next column you’ll find out if I did actually get to Cape May—after all, it is hurricane season. However, Philadelphia itself has a good reputation for bird watching.

I don’t expect to add a lot of birds to my life list as I did in Alaska. The birds of my Midwestern youth are pretty much the same species as in the east, except for the seabirds that might overfly the cape, though I still may pick up species I wasn’t paying attention to 30 years ago.

Checking out the Cape May Rare Bird Alert Web site, I was surprised to see some familiar, but normally western, birds listed—American white pelican, American avocet and lark sparrow. Just visiting, like me. Just a long way from home for a short while.

CMBO hawk watching platform

Cape May Bird Observatory hawk watching platform. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Alaska birds add to life list

Sitka, Alaska harbor

One of the harbors in Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Sept. 2, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Alaska birds add to life list.”

2014 Update: We continue to make trips to Alaska to visit my brother-in-law—and find more Alaskan birds.

By Barb Gorges

“It’s easy to find. Stay to the right of that cruise ship until the entrance of the bay and then stay to the left. It’s cream-colored with green trim,” said the woman renting us her float house for two nights. We stood on the dock in Sitka, Alaska, our rented 18-foot skiff packed with provisions and fishing gear for our family of four plus Peter, Mark’s brother.

Luckily, Peter lives in Sitka and has fished the sound quite a bit. Also, from topo maps, we knew Camp Coogan Bay was only six miles away.

We found the small, isolated frame house on a barge moored to a dock which was anchored to the shore of a cove bordered by the deep green of Tongass National Forest.

While fishing and kayaking the mile-long bay, belted kingfishers and bald eagles were our most common companions. Small birds floating on the calm waters were marbled murrelets, my introduction to the alcid family, a group of ocean bird species that only come on land when they nest, in colonies, on cliff ledges or in burrows or rock crevices.

On shore, the forest floor was steep and deep in wood at different stages of spongy decay, with little undergrowth except for a thick layer of moss. Walking the trail-less ground was like climbing a pile of well-upholstered couches. Invisible birds twittered at the tops of 150 to 200-foot tall spruce and hemlock.

The day we chartered a fishing trip we came in behind St. Lazarius Island, famous for its bird nesting colonies. I was able to glimpse two more members of the alcid family, pigeon guillemots and puffins.

Later, I realized there may be two species of puffins in the area and I think what I saw (though I couldn’t stomach binoculars) were the all-black bodies and colorful heads of the tufted puffins as they skimmed the waves, rather than the white bellies of the horned puffins.

Between tours of historical Russian and Tlingit landmarks, we hiked forest trails and I finally caught up with the chestnut-backed chickadee, another new species for me. It was easier to find in the muskeg where stunted tree growth put the tops of lodgepole pines nearly eye-level.

On a particularly grueling hike up Gaven Hill we frequently paused for breath. It was one staircase after another, literally. Sitka-area trails seem to be either boardwalks across the bogs or wooden steps up mountains. Some tiny movement or sound caused us to examine shadowy tree branches and discover a robin shape which was actually a varied thrush, another new species for me, as was a winter wren we saw later.

I did spot one lonely robin in town after nearly a week—the same day I finally noticed starlings. The Northwestern crows were much more abundant. They are a distinct species and caw with a discernable accent. I noticed them and at least one raven stockpiling food and treasures in rain gutters.

There are no house sparrows or house finches in Sitka. Peter said he gets fox sparrows at his feeder. I think I saw some of them down at the waterfront. In southeast Alaska they are a very dark variety.

Gulls are an enigma to me. My pre-trip research had shown a possibility of glaucous-winged gulls, so I gave every gull a good look, but so many appeared to be murky-colored immatures or too far away.

Finally, I found a flock close in on a gravel bar and memorized the distinct markings of one bird: pink legs and red spot on lower mandible. These turned out to be perfect field marks for the herring gull—common on either coast. I should have been looking for an absence of black on the wing tips. However, I felt better after reading the note in the field guide which said herring gulls hybridize extensively with glaucous-winged gulls where ranges overlap, making them difficult to distinguish.

My shorebird identification skills are about on par with my gull abilities. One day we saw a handful at the water’s edge that Peter said were turnstones. Black turnstones have about the most distinguishable plumage of any shorebird that might be in Sitka, even in late summer, so I added them to my list of new life birds.

My complete Sitka bird list is not very long, even though I had help from Peter. But I’m happy about every bird I found while on what was essentially a family vacation rather than a birding trip.

For those of you interested, the fish species we caught included pink, silver and king salmon, halibut, flounder, rockfish and lingcod, plus crabs too small to keep. We also found starfish, mussels, squid and scallops and sighted humpback whales, sea lions, lots of red squirrels, but, thank goodness, no bears.

If we’re lucky enough to visit Sitka again, I hope we go earlier, maybe June. I’d sign up for a boat tour of St. Lazarius Island and look up local contacts in the American Birding Association directory.

Another trip might also give us a better feel for the normally cool and wet temperate rainforest climate. As it was, every day was sunny except one and our first day the temperature hit a record-breaking 89 degrees.

Since our return home, Peter reports that it has started raining again, which, he says, makes the salmon happy.


Feather along trail at Starrigavan, Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Generosity of other birders improves travel experience


Young Bald Eagles fight over fish in Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Aug. 18, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Generosity of other birders improves travel experience.”

2014 Update: If you didn’t make it to Alaska this summer, start planning for next year. Go to to research bird checklists, hotspots and recent sightings at your travel destination.

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I have yet to hire a birding guide or join an organized bird trip in our travels, but someday we may have to if we travel somewhere with unfamiliar birds.

Meanwhile, we find birding hotspots by using But then there is also the generosity of local birders.

Mid-July, Mark and I were walking the trails at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, overwhelmed by the sounds of small birds high in the rainforest canopy. We knew the singing was thrushes, but even though we’d gone online the night before to listen to the three possibilities, varied (definitely different), hermit and Swainson’s, our audio memory wasn’t very good.

This was supposed to be a vacation so I was trying to just let it go. I can’t reliably sort out Swainson’s and hermits by sight in my own backyard during migration, where they never sing, much less these invisible birds.

But enter Lucy. When you are wearing binoculars, it is not considered rude to walk up to a total stranger also wearing binoculars and ask “What are you seeing?”

Some birders, I have heard, are curmudgeons, but not this woman. We chatted more than 5 minutes before she invited us to come with her to an opening in the bushes along the shore where she’d seen four species of gulls the day before.

Lucy also explained an easy way to identify the singing thrushes: the Swainson’s fluting song spirals up and the hermit’s makes a little rise before spiraling down.

We were surprised any birds were still singing in mid-July, still advertising for mates and establishing territories. I later read that the Alaska Natives call the thrushes “salmonberry birds” because they sing at the time of year salmonberries are ripe.

They are right about that. Sitka’s brambles were full of these raspberry-type berries, either a deep gold or a deep red when ripe. Mark’s brother, Peter, who lives in Sitka, pointed them out. They are kind of seedy so the best way to eat them is to pop one in your mouth, smash it with your tongue to get the juice and then swallow it whole. It was hard to concentrate on birding with so many berries to pick. Luckily, no bears were competing with us.

Lucy still had to get to work that morning so we bid adieu.

The next day we stopped by the Fishermen’s Eye Gallery where she works and gave her an update on the birds we’d seen, including nine young bald eagles checking out the first returning salmon of the season and glaucous-winged, mew and Bonaparte’s gulls.

We were very lucky to meet Lucy, a local, who has led bird tours in the past.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse seen on Mount Roberts, above Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

In Juneau, it was a fellow traveler who alerted us to birds. We took the tram up Mount Roberts, hoping to see ptarmigan on the trail at the top. Instead, we got an unsolicited heads-up on a family of sooty grouse (formerly spruce grouse) from a man wearing all black—and binoculars.

At Mendenhall Glacier, we struck up a conversation with another man with binoculars. He said we should talk to his buddy, a “real birder,” an energetic, white-haired man who spent half our conversation promoting birding his own neighborhood and encouraged us to call him if we ever travel to Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

We watched for seabirds from the Alaska Marine Highway—the ferry—from Sitka to Skagway and all the way back to Bellingham, Wash., and from all our stops in between, but had better luck identifying whales. The fast-winging black dots remained inscrutable. They might be worth a guided trip.

One of the crew members did point out the flock of pink, plastic flamingos perched in a tree on Highwater Island, near Sitka.

These migrate from China, he said, by way of the U.S. Coast Guard’s training center.



Preparing for Alaska birding

totem pole

You never know where you will find birds in your travels. This is Totem Bight State Park, Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 19, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Timing will be everything for birding Alaska.”

2014 Update: You can now visit and easily research what birds people are seeing in a particular locale before you go.

By Barb Gorges

The last week of July two reports came over the Wyobirds e-list, both indicating the first wave of fall migration—shorebirds—had already started passing through.

If plovers and sandpipers make it this far south by then, will there be any left in southeast Alaska when we visit Mark’s brother, Peter, in Sitka a month later?

It’s time to take the advice I give to other birdwatching travelers and study up on where we’ll be going.

My first step is to query my Thayer Birding Software “Birds of North America” CD-ROM. I ask it to make lists of all the common birds in Alaska for two habitat types, Ocean Shore and Open Ocean. I don’t expect the forest birds to be too different from those of Wyoming’s mountains, but the seabirds are going to be all new to me and I’m not very good at shorebird identification.

As I suspected, the Open Ocean list includes over a dozen birds I’ve never seen in person, only paged past in field guides: red-throated and Pacific loons, sooty shearwater, pelagic cormorant, common eider, three scoter species, three new gull species and the common murre. However, though they can all be observed off the Alexander Archipelago that makes up much of southeast Alaska, only a few are summer birds.

Our plans are to spend a couple days in a boat fishing, so if the Dramamine works, I may get to see another seabird, the auklet with the descriptive first name, “rhinoceros,” which translates as “nose horn,” not “large African mammal”.

The Ocean Shore list includes about a dozen shorebirds from the Wyobirds reports. Looking in “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,” I note that according to the range maps, some, such as the whimbrel, semipalmated plover and semipalmated sandpiper, migrate from northern Alaska through the Sitka area, while others, such as the greater yellowlegs, have summer or breeding ranges that include southeast Alaska.

It’s difficult to tell by looking at the range map in Sibley if some species ever occur around Sitka. The entire North American continent is shown only one inch square and the jumble of island boundary lines makes it difficult to pick out narrow bands of color indicating season of residence.

The good old American avocet, an easy to identify shorebird here in Wyoming, was listed as common on Alaska shores, but even after I put on my glasses, I couldn’t see any color of occurrence anywhere in the state. At least the map for the wandering tattler shows a distinct band of yellow indicating a migration route from its breeding range in interior Alaska and the Yukon, through Sitka, to its wintering grounds along the California coast.

When exactly is migration for these species? Undoubtedly, it starts as early as July for the migrating shorebirds we see in Wyoming. Will that make late August late enough to see a winter species such as the black-legged kittiwake?

What I really need is a book like Terry McEneaney’s “Birds of Yellowstone” for which he made charts showing in which habitats and which months a species might be seen.

From the descriptions available in the American Birding Association catalog and Barnes and Noble’s book list, I don’t see a book precisely answering my needs, or with timely shipping.

What would procrastinators do without the Internet? So I go in search of a checklist for Sitka that will have the birds I might see in August.

Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Alaska mentions Saint Lazaria Island near Sitka and its huge number of birds. Several ocean species nest in colonies on the cliffs. Online I find that it is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. No bird list on the Web site though.

At, a conglomerate of search engine results for “Alaska+bird” gives me the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka and the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks, but no lists.

However, the Juneau Audubon Society has a checklist which I can print out. Juneau has similar habitat to Sitka and is only about 100 miles away. Unfortunately, the list gives no migration information.

The most common species listed for summer include birds I know well: mallard, bald eagle, blue grouse, Steller’s jay, common raven, barn swallow, American robin, dark-eyed junco and pine siskin. In another category of common species are those also found in Wyoming, but which I’m not good at identifying—various shorebirds, warblers and sparrows, etc.

But happily, some of the distinctive common summer birds will be new to me: mew gull, glaucous-winged gull, Arctic tern, marbled murrelet, northwestern crow, chestnut-backed chickadee, winter wren and varied thrush. All of these are species I’m unlikely to see in Wyoming. I just hope it won’t be too late in the season.

At least when it comes to identifying fish, I’ll be traveling with my personal, professional fish biologist. As for bears, I’d rather not have to identify any. A few whales would be nice. Maybe even a pigeon guillemot. Wish me luck.

Wildlife in Alaska

Portage Glacier

Portage Glacier is one of the must-sees of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Wildlife watchers investigate Anchorage, Seward and Homer, Alaska.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated.

By Barb Gorges

It is impossible to escape wildlife in Alaska. It’s everywhere: bridge railings formed as a series of jumping salmon, business names, likenesses on every imaginable item and items made from fur, feathers, bones and tusks.

The good news is that you can also see the animals in person.

In mid-June my husband, Mark, and I met his brother, Peter, in Anchorage for a taste of the Kenai Peninsula during the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood.

If you imagine the outline of the southern border of the state, locate the Kenai Peninsula at the apex (Anchorage just above it) between the Aleutian Islands trailing to the southwest and the southeast coast bordering Canada.

Besides trying to eat as much fresh seafood as possible, our unstated goal was to see as much wildlife as possible. Here are some of our highlights.


We started with a couple days in Anchorage, finding a moose grazing next to a scenic overlook and waterfowl nesting half a foot from a busy bike and pedestrian path, both within city limits.

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, 13 miles long, borders the city on the northwest, along Knik Arm. You can rent a bike and enjoy the long, colorful evenings. Sunset was 11:30 p.m. and sunrise at 4:30 a.m. while we were there, though Anchorage considers itself to have 24 hours of “functional” daylight at the summer solstice.

Chugach State Park covers the mountains at the eastern city limits. We chose the Flattop Mountain trail for a close look at the tundra. You need an early start because by noon on a summer weekday the parking lot is full of both residents and tourists.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center, admission $25 per adult (discounts available, small children free), is over-priced unless you spend the whole day investigating the work of onsite Native craftspeople, walking to replicas of Native life for five distinct regions and catching all of the performances of Native singing, dancing and game playing.

The Kenai Peninsula is a small percentage of Alaska, but don’t let that deceive you when figuring driving distances. To access it from Anchorage, one must drive east about an hour on a twisty two lane highway along the shore of Turnagain Arm. Try to avoid driving when the Anchorites are using it for a weekend escape route.

It’s a total of 127 miles, Anchorage to Seward. Be sure to schedule enough time for all the scenic turnouts and especially the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier. It was well-worth the U.S. Forest Service’s minimal admission fee to get an entertaining, hands-on education on local natural history.


In Seward we took a 6-hour boat trip with Kenai Fjords Tours to see a bit of Kenai Fjords National Park. Our captain took us through the brash ice to the foot of Holgate Glacier. On the way she pointed out three kinds of whales and other marine life. Mid-June is the season for seeing newborn sea lion pups and nesting kittiwakes and puffins on rocky islands.

Back on shore we saw the sea animals again (minus whales) up close at the Alaska SeaLife Center. It has a camera working the sea lion rookery and images can be viewed live on the Internet or on a local Seward TV station.

We took a hike up to look at Exit Glacier, part of the national park, and marveled at how far it has retreated since 1815, and even in the last 10 years. Because the Harding Ice Field, of which it is a part, is in the way, it is 174 circuitous miles to drive to Homer.


Don’t miss the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, not just because admission is free.

There are lots of jokes about Homer Spit, 5 miles of sand sticking out into Kachemak Bay, but that’s where you’ll find the water taxi, tour companies, seafood restaurants, Land’s End Resort, gift shops, fishing charters, and kayak rentals. If you are worried about tsunamis, don’t camp here.

We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast, “A Rosy Overlook,” half way up the bluff above town, with a wonderful garden and view of the bay. The hosts, Rosie and Erless Burgess, long-time Alaska residents, entertained us with local stories in the evenings.

We took a day-long boat trip across the bay to Seldovia, which is not accessible by highway. It was settled by the Russians in 1870 as a fishing village. The captain, again a woman, gave us historical background and great looks at nesting gull colonies.

It was 225 miles back to Anchorage, but again, it required a full day at 45 to 55, seldom 65, miles per hour and several stops, especially to see the line of at least 100 fishermen standing in the Russian River, perfectly spaced two rod lengths apart, trying to snag migrating sockeye salmon.

We saw lots of wildlife, ate lots of fresh salmon and halibut, and need to schedule another trip to see everything we missed.

General Information

Remember, Alaska is two hours behind Cheyenne. When it is 11 a.m. here, it is 9 a.m. there.

Alaska Geographic (nonprofit, trip planning help),

Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska,

Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council,


Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau,

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail,

Alaska Native Heritage Center,

Chugach State Park,

Portage Glacier:

Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, Chugach National Forest,


Kenai Fjords National Park,

Kenai Fjords Tours,

Alaska SeaLife Center,


Rainbow Tours,

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, free,

Bird variety in Alaska

Tree Swallow

A Tree Swallow at Potter Marsh in Anchorage enjoys custom homes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birders: If you want to see variety, visit Alaska.”

2014 Update: Take a look at when planning a trip—and post your bird observations there for safe keeping.

By Barb Gorges

I have a habit of unexpectedly running into old friends in my travels, miles and/or years from where we first met. A recent trip to south-central Alaska was no exception, though it was birds rather than people.

Also, it is funny how the local birdwatchers where I travel will speak reverently of a bird I think is common, but shrug at a bird I’ve always wanted to add to my life list. A species’ “high value” apparently depends on a bird’s lack of abundance in a particular area.

I didn’t check, but probably the bird hotline in Anchorage doesn’t get excited about multiple Arctic terns flitting over the city’s Westchester Lagoons, like over-sized white barn swallows. But they wintered in Antarctica and made a 12,000-mile journey back. Anchorites do brag about that on interpretive signs.

My husband Mark and I, and his brother, Peter, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, walked up to a group of obviously dedicated birders with an array of scopes pointing to a lagoon’s island where gulls were nesting (this was mid-June). Turns out they were on a multi-week Alaskan bird tour. One gentleman was excited about the mew gulls he had just learned to identify and carefully pointed out their chicks to me.

Mallards were in short supply at the lagoons and not looking for handouts. Two pairs were nesting six feet from the parking lot and completely immovable.

We saw the same reaction from the pair of red-necked grebes nesting two feet off the bike path, except in this case it gave us a very good look at a bird that rarely visits Wyoming.

Up in the Glen Alps in Chugach State Park, on the outskirts of Anchorage, Peter pointed out the one-note song of the varied thrush, a bird finding itself in Wyoming only accidentally. Another loud singer turned out to be an orange-crowned warbler, a regular, but quiet, spring visitor back home.

On another forest hike I recognized the sweet double notes of a hermit thrush, a species I’d recently heard on a recording. I stopped to watch it sing while at the same time wondering where the bears were.

At the bed and breakfast in Homer, decorated with a birdhouse theme, the hosts had a bird feeder out and I was finally able to put a name to the large sparrow I’d been catching glimpses of, the fox sparrow. The ranges of its four subspecies seem to bypass Cheyenne.

There was also a pair of familiar red-breasted nuthatches nesting in the yard (ours go to the mountains in the summer) and black-capped chickadees. I was hoping to find boreal and chestnut-backed chickadees on this trip, but they are hard to spot in all the foliage.

Down at the waterfront in Seward, the line of ducks bobbing in the waves and diving in synchrony were harlequin ducks. To see them in Wyoming, you have to go up by Yellowstone National Park.

The highlight of the trip for me was the seabirds. Last time we were out on Alaskan waters I was too sick to appreciate anything. This time we took two trips and the sea was nearly perfect, or maybe it was the ginger tablets, or staying outside, which worked.

It was nesting season and our boat captains took us right up to cliffs covered with nests of black-legged kittiwakes (Seward to Kenai Fjords National Park) and glaucous-winged gulls and common murres (Homer to Seldovia).

Horned Puffin

A Horned Puffin naps at the Alaska Sealife Center. Photo by Barb Gorges.

We even saw puffins, both tufted and horned. To draw them as cartoon characters is to draw them accurately. We watched one at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and it flies underwater as well as it does the air.

One tour boat captain’s assessment was that finding bald eagles on forested hillsides was like looking for golf balls (their white heads show up well against the green forest), and we saw them everywhere, but they still seemed majestic to me.

If you love birds and are visiting the Kenai Peninsula, be sure to visit the free Islands and Ocean Visitor Center at Homer, operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.

They do a wonderful job of recounting the history of Alaskan seabird conservation (including Wyomingite Olaus Murie’s seabird surveys in the 1930’s) and the research being done in Kachemak Bay and along the Aleutian Islands. It might take a few seasickness-prevention patches, but I think the islands are where I’d like to go next.

Meanwhile, out behind the center there was a lone sandhill crane along the Beluga Slough trail and whimbrels on the beach.

Did I mention the black-billed magpies we saw everywhere? What a surprise. But it’s always nice to see familiar faces far from home.