A Birding Bonanza in Alaska

Published: April 10, 2023

Birding is a popular pastime for many more folks than you probably realize. According to the most recent research from the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, among the 51 activities that are tracked by the survey, birding is the 15th most popular activity, attracting 33 percent of people 16+ years old, an estimated 70.4 million people in the U.S.

And birding in Alaska is big business, as expert birders and avian amateurs flock to the state every summer to see some seriously fine-feathered visitors and locals. Alaska’s unique northern location, warm summer sun, and unspoiled wilderness landscapes create a habitat loaded with sustenance for our fine feathered friends, making the state a migration mecca for tens of thousands of land-based and marine bird life and a key location for aspiring to professional birders who follow them, armed with bird lists, binoculars, and high hopes.

Arctic Tern

Alaska is a world-class birding destination. Check out the University of Alaska’s latest bird list!

Birding in Alaska embraces easy to spot migratory species to rarer travelers that return to Alaska from around the world every summer (petite Blackpoll and Arctic Warblers, elegant Sandhill cranes, unmistakable Canada geese, and literally hundreds more). Birders can also spot year-round residents that are Alaska local’s “frequently flyers” (ptarmigan, bald eagles, ravens, puffins and many more). Be on the lookout for birds of all feathers: the peculiar willow ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, just about anywhere you go; the pretty puffin flapping, floating and diving on the open water; big, beautiful eagles soaring high and always on the hunt; the cool sights and sounds of owls and woodpeckers at work; countless geese flying in V formations as they travel to or from their summer homes, honking all the way; and so many more.

And it’s easy to find avian action here. Just walk down a city street, stroll along a port town’s beach, take a hike into the mountains or the woods, or float out on any waterway and you’re sure to see a bird, or a bunch of them, cruising in the sky, floating on the water, feeding in a field, nesting in a tree, or simply perched up on some high vantage point watching you as you watch them. There are even hot spots in Alaska’s big cities: in Fairbanks, Creamer’s Field is the summer home to thousands of cranes, geese, ducks and dozens of other bird species who feed under the Midnight Sun; and in Anchorage, Westchester Lagoon in downtown and Potter Marsh on the south end of town provide urban birding brilliance.

Bald Eagle in Alaska. Who spotted who – first?

Of course, if you want to spot the Alaska’s birds still on your bird list and a bit more challenging to find, there are many ways to increase your odds of seeing them across the state. You can visit wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, migration stations and nesting zones for gathering birds spread out across the state. Coastal towns on the Kenai Peninsula (Homer, Seward, Kenai and Whittier) and in Southeast Alaska (Cordova, Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau) are “sure-thing” birding bets. And some of these locations even host big-time birding festivals in Alaska.

Photographers and shorebird flock at Copper River Shorebird Festival in Alaska.

Denali National Park is another  opportunity, especially in the summer when the park hosts 167 species of both local and migratory birds. And of course the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea are home to an estimated 3 million seabirds and over 220 species, from thick-billed murres, common murres, least auklets, parakeet auklets, horned puffins, tufted puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and most of the world’s population of red-legged kittiwakes.

The Kenai Peninsula is especially accessible for most Alaska travelers who are based out of Anchorage, Alaska’s travel hub. An easy yet beauty-packed Kenai self-drive tour allows travelers to explore the peninsula, whether they’re looking for birds, fish, mountain goats or all forms of Alaska adventures. In Seward, a handful of Kenai Fjords National Park cruises bring their passengers to the birds, as well as whales, glaciers and lovely overnight lodging. You can take a 6-hour day cruise into the Park,  or an 8-hour boat trip from Seward into Northwestern Fjord.  And the always quaint and quirky Homer is home to some of Alaska’s most interesting water birds (puffins!), food and fun on the water, from fishing to kayaking.

Playful puffin near Homer, Alaska.

And would you believe that Nome, in Alaska’s Far North and located at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race far above the Arctic Circle, is also a turnaround point for thousands of migratory birds as well as home to some of Alaska’s most hearty birds? Venture north for a big Alaska birding payoff, as well as Arctic adventures, self-driving tours and Gold Rush history and Alaska Native culture.

No matter where your Alaska journey takes you, if you like birds, you’ve come to the right place. 

Colorful seabirds of many species are seen along Alaska’s coastal waterways.