Yakutat Ranger District Birding

Birding Opportunities Abound on the Yakutat Ranger District

“Standing on Cannon Beach (Spring migration), one can observe thousands of loons, brant, scoters and kittiwakes heading northward….” Brad Andres, Author, The Birds of Yakutat, Alaska 

* All photos on this page courtesy of Mike Denega unless otherwise noted
Bordered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek World Heritage Site, the lands surrounding Yakutat extend approximately 50 miles between the Alsek River, on the south edge and Yakutat Bay on the north edge. A combination of public lands – primarily the 16.9 million acres Tongass National Forest , Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve , a sliver of Glacier Bay National Park – and private lands, including those owned by the Yakutat native people, encompass the area. The Yakutat forelands, a broad, flat mosaic of marshes, shrub lands, rivers and forests, is bordered on the east by precipitous mountains, fiords, and luxuriant valleys. Tall mountain ranges and the Gulf of Alaska squeeze the landscapes in the forelands into a narrow corridor used by hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.   
Yakutat is composed of world - class ecosystems for wildlife viewing, photography, sport fishing and especially, birding. Over millennia, geologic forces have shaped the ecologically diverse fish and wildlife habitats present today. 
Some examples of this landscape diversity include: 
  • The world’s largest non-polar ice fields, sporting spectacular glaciers. The Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier on the North American continent.
  • The greatest collection of the continent’s mountain peaks above 16,000 feet exists here, including Mt. Saint Elias – at 18,000 feet, the second highest peak in North America. All of these are visible from the Yakutat Forelands.
  • Numerous rivers and streams, freshwater lakes and ponds, saltwater lagoons, sandy beaches, sand dunes, tidal flats, barrier islands, bays and fjords – shaped by significant geologic and glacier activity - are accessible to bird watchers and are within a relatively short distance from Yakutat. 


There are significant opportunities such as bird watching, wildlife viewing, and a multitude of outdoor recreational activities available in Yakutat. The Tongass National Forest, in collaboration with volunteers and other groups, is working to promote birding opportunities by establishing a series of birding routes for visitors. Future plans include a Yakutat area bird watching guide and a bird themed festival slated to begin in 2011. 
Why go birding in Yakutat? 
Consider some of these birding highlights:
  • Over 200 species of birds have been identified in Yakutat – over 100 species breed or are suspected of breeding on the forelands. The sheer numbers of birds during migrations are extraordinary – over 300,000 shorebirds; hundreds of sandhill cranes and raptors; numerous swans, waterfowl and seabirds; and high densities of songbirds. Early in the spring migration, a spectacle of huge numbers of Bald Eagles, mergansers, gulls, and other birds gather at the mouths of rivers and streams to feed on enormous schools of anadromous smelt known as eulachon. 
  • Breeding birds are distributed throughout a variety of habitats in late spring and summer. Songbirds take advantage of such habitats as needle-leaf forests, tall shrubs, bogs, riparian areas and marshes.
  • What about the rarities? In the lower 48 states rare bird sightings hit the Internet instantly creating excitement among serious birders. In Yakutat, birders can view the largest breeding colony of Aleutian Terns in North America, enjoy frequent sightings of marbled murrelets and Kittlitz’s Murrelets, and even have a chance of encountering yellow-billed Loons and black–footed Albatross. Also, Yakutat’s geography lends itself to rare birds passing through from unusual places. 
The following quote is from Mike Denega, a volunteer who helps with migratory bird research projects throughout Alaska, and has recently joined forces with the Yakutat Ranger District to help with the birding project effort: 
“When my plane landed in Yakutat in May 2008 – my first visit - I anticipated having a good experience in yet another special Alaska community, but I had no idea this area would leave me with such a significant impression. In June 2009, I was mesmerized by the vocalizations of songbirds and the overall birding experience while hiking 9 forested trails and floating 14 miles of the Situk River bordered by gallery forests during my visits to Yakutat. My trips to prominent estuaries, bays and fjords in the area were equally exceptional”.
Finding Birds in Yakutat
Viewing and listening to birds is possible within close proximity to the town of Yakutat. Birders can hike the trails, canoe or kayak the waterways, or drive a rental car in pursuit of good bird watching. Local airplane services will fly birders to unique locations for a combination of great birding and aerial views of the extraordinary landscape. Flights are generally short distances and therefore reasonably priced. 
The community of Yakutat, including the Forest Service, is working hard to develop the area for its wildlife viewing opportunities with an emphasis on birding. Interpretive signs and trails, developed viewing areas, and a birding festival are all being planned.
Also visit www.seatrails.org for information on area trails offering birding opportunities. This is a valuable comprehensive website for Alaska travelers to plan their travel itineraries prior to visiting locations throughout southeast and south coastal Alaska. Watch for additional information at this website. 
Careful planning, binoculars, an excellent bird watching guidebook, and a spirit of adventure are all you need to have a great birding experience in Yakutat.
Yakutat Area Bird Habitats
A few examples of bird species to expect in each habitat are included: 
Sailboat in Yakutat BaySalt Water
This habitat includes sheltered waters of Yakutat Bay, Disenchantment Bay and the open ocean – Gulf of Alaska. It hosts a great variety of water birds. Rare throughout much of the Pacific, Marbled Murrelets are abundant here year round and the less common Kittlitz’s Murrelet can be spotted around Yakutat bay. Look for Arctic and Aleutian Terns foraging near Cannon beach and the shorelines near town, often associated with Blacklegged kittiwakes and Bonaparte’s Gulls. Rafts of sea ducks (primarily Surf and White-winged Scoters) can number into the tens of thousands. Open sea areas may host pelagic (sea-going) birds such as Northern Fulmar and Sooty Shearwater, or, with some luck, a Black-footed Albatross. Pelagic Cormorants are often moving near shore. Common, Pacific and occasionally Yellow-billed Loons may be present.
Rocky shoreline habitatRocky Shoreline
Sheltered inshore waters tend to have rock and cobble shorelines, often very close to old growth forests – islands in Yakutat Bay, Russell and Nunatak Fjords are examples. During spring and fall look for black turnstones and other shorebird species. All year Northwestern crows congregate to feed on mussels and other shellfish. Watch for them dropping objects from above to crack shells. Black oystercatchers nest on islands and around bays. Northern sea ducks, Harlequin ducks and Barrow’s goldeneyes commonly approach or even perch on rocky points here when they leave adjacent waters.
Situk-Ahrnklin estuary, Semipalmated Plover on Black Sand SpitSandy Beach
Long expanses of open beach extending more than 50 miles make for good long-distance viewing for inshore water species, mentioned above, and for viewing high- flying migrants such as sandhill cranes during migration. Additionally, this is nesting habitat for a number of interesting species including: arctic and Aleutian Terns, semipalmated plover, spotted sandpiper, and parasitic jaeger. Large groups of gulls, numbering in the hundreds to thousands, may rest along the surf line. Glaucous-winged gull and herring gull are the most common of the large “seagull” species, but determined birders are sure to turn up rarities given the large numbers of birds and strategic geographic location for vagrants. During migration, shorebird species, especially sanderling, may feed near the surf. Black Sand Spit, a long coastal black sand barrier between the Situk-Ahrnklin estuary and the Gulf of Alaska, is an excellent birding site. Nesting terns can be viewed here from the estuary. 
Situk River DeltaTidal Flats and Estuary
The Yakutat forelands are blessed with numerous streams and rivers. The river mouths are productive areas for both waterfowl and shorebirds to feed in the silt - laden shallows at low tide, especially during spring and fall migration. The Situk River, in close proximity to Yakutat, is the most productive river for its size in Alaska. The foreland is an important stop on the Pacific flyway and one of the narrowest points along it. Spring shorebird migration is especially spectacular when flocks of thousands of birds dominated by western sandpiper, least sandpiper and dunlin congregate on their journey north. Spring is an excellent time to see nearly all of the North American shorebird species in their breeding plumage. The Yakutat area may be the largest stopover for the Alaska-breeding subspecies of marbled godwit. Vast numbers of waterfowl can also be expected during migration. Common migrant species include snow goose, greater white-fronted goose, northern shoveler, mallard, northern pintail, American widgeon and green-winged teal. Four subspecies of Canada goose, including the dusky Canada goose, have been reported in migration. 
Salt MarshSalt Marsh
Covered with sedges in the summer, these marshes can be good for shorebirds and waterfowl, as the tidal flats, (see above in reference to tidal flats). In summer they are good places to look for savannah sparrow and Wilson’s snipe
Trumpeter Swan over Aka LakeLakes
Local lakes host both nesting and migratory waterfowl. Situk Lake, Mountain Lake, and Harlequin Lake are all accessible by developed walking trails. Trumpeter swans are one of the most spectacular species to look for here. They nest in marshy horsetail areas surrounded by lakes. Some other interesting species likely to be resident in summer include ring-necked duck and common goldeneye. Enjoy the walk to these lakes through luxuriant temperate rain forests.
Common MerganserRivers
Bird watching from a kayak or canoe, you are likely to see common mergansers and possibly red-breasted and hooded mergansers, belted kingfishers, and spotted sandpipers at stream’s edge. Waterfowl species found in lakes and estuaries may also be hiding in the side channels. Spectacular rivers, like the Alsek, Akwe, Italio, Lost, and Situk, allow birders to combine high quality sport fishing and bird watching. 
Pike Lake regionFreshwater bogs and meadows
The flat expanses of the forelands host a huge amount of spongy wetlands. The habitat includes peat bog, native grasses and sedges, and water-adapted broadleaf plants. Greater yellowlegs, Lincoln’s sparrow and common yellowthroat commonly nest here. Look for the “Yakutat” song sparrow, a large and dark subspecies found only in this locality. Tree swallows may use areas where dead trees border the wetlands. The rusty blackbird, a species that has experienced sharp declines throughout its range, may still use ponds within this habitat.
Tall shrubs in foreground and young growth in backgroundTall shrub and young-growth forest
Extensive patches of willow and alder make for rich land bird habitat. Summer brings extraordinarily high densities of orange-crowned, Wilson’s, and myrtle yellow-rumped Warblers and dark-eyed juncos as well as ruby-crowned kinglets and alder Flycatchers that feed on the numerous insects. Willow areas along the coast may be traps for these and other species of migrating warblers and sparrows. The melodious songs of fox sparrows and hermit thrushes dominate the mornings in areas of alder and young conifers, especially in regenerating clear cuts. 
Needleleaf forestNeedleleaf Forest
Stands of large trees, primarily Sitka spruce, are found throughout the forelands. This is near the northern extent of the vast, luxuriant, temperate rain forests of Southeast Alaska. The most commonly encountered birds here are the varied thrush, whose “gym whistle” song resonates through the trees all summer, and the Steller’s jay (a darker cousin to the familiar Blue jay) who resides here year round. Also be on the lookout for tiny old-growth species such as chestnut-backed chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets and the reclusive brown creepers. They are best detected by their high-pitched calls and songs. Finch species frequent this habitat at times. Due to “irruptive” movement patterns that follow cone crops from place to place, large flocks of pine siskins, common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, and white-winged and red crossbills may be present. 
Red-breasted SapsuckerBroadleaf/Mixed Forest
Dominated by tall cottonwoods, this is the habitat found along large rivers leading inland, such as the Dangerous River. Bird-watchers may view this as habitat “waiting” to be discovered by more species as glaciers recede and birds disperse down the rivers from interior Canada. Yellow warblers, warbling vireos and red-breasted sapsuckers nest in the cottonwoods.
Alpine viewsAlpine
Alpine is very difficult to access from Yakutat, and has not been thoroughly inventoried. Rock ptarmigan, willow ptarmigan, American pipit and gray-crowned rosy finch are some of the interesting alpine species that are potentially present in open areas at lower elevations, especially toward Harlequin Lake and during winter months.
Aerial photo of Yakutat looking NorthDeveloped areas
Yakutat is a small, remote community, but the bird life within it differs somewhat from the surrounding habitat. Here you are more likely to encounter familiar species such as the American robin, common raven, and barn swallow. Bald eagles frequent this area in addition to nearly all the habitats mentioned above, and always provide an interesting view or photographic opportunity. Black-billed magpies are uncommon but may be seen year round, particularly in winter. The recent appearance of Eurasian collared dove was first reported at bird feeders and parking lots, and more new species drifting northwards from the South can be expected. 
Birders can arrive in Yakutat by commercial airline or ferry, rent a car at the airport, drive to a special accommodation, perhaps a bed and breakfast facility or local lodge, and spend time observing birds within the many extraordinary habitats characteristic of the area.
Individuals and groups planning on traveling to Yakutat for a great outdoor experience will benefit from contacting the Yakutat Chamber of Commerce at www.ptialaska.net/~gycc/
The following publications are highly recommended reading:
The Birds of Yakutat, Alaska by Brad A. Andres and Brian T. Brown 
Region 10 Technical Publication 141, 
January 2007, United States Department of the Interior, Forest Service, Alaska Region
Guide to the Birds of Alaska, By Robert H. Armstrong 
Alaska Northwest Books; 5th edition (April1, 2008)
Birds of Southeast Alaska: An annotated list from Icy Bay south to Dixon Entrance (2010 edition). Compiled by Steve Heinl, available from any local Alaska Geographic outlet (Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, or Ketchikan) or through the mail by contacting www. alaskageographic.org
For further information on birding in Yakutat, please contact the following:
Susan Oehlers, Wildlife Biologist 
Tongass National Forest
Yakutat Ranger District
(907) 784-3359
Mike Denega, Professor of Biology/Research Volunteer 
Folsom Lake College, Placerville California 
(530) 306-4936