In the summer, the Alaska Marine Highway provides service twice monthly along the Aleutian Chain from Homer to Unalaska. Birders come here from around the world to add unique species to their "life lists." The Aleutian Chain trip passes along a significant slice of the remote and widespread Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. Refuge experts suggest visiting June through August, when marine birds and mammals are coming ashore to breed and raise young.
Homer — At the End of the Road the Adventure Begins (+)
Homer — At the End of the Road the Adventure Begins (-)
Drive or fly to Homer and depart on the ferry to begin your journey along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Chain. Be sure to make advance reservations on the ferry, and reserve a cabin for this week-long adventure as cabin availability is extremely limited. During your voyage, look for birds from the forward observation lounge or go on the top deck and relax in the heated solarium. Full-service dining is available on this vessel as well as a movie theater and gift shop.
Kodiak — Alaska Untamed (+)
Kodiak — Alaska Untamed (-)
About 60 miles outside of Homer, the ferry passes to the east of the Barren Islands, a group of mountainous islands housing a significant Gulf of Alaska seabird colony. The ferry passes closest to the high, rocky peaks of East Amatuli Island, an oasis for the millions of birds that benefit from its strategic location, away from most predators and close to abundant forage fish. The Barren Islands are home to fork-tailed storm-petrels, tufted and horned puffins, parakeet and rhinoceros auklets, ancient murrelets, marbled murrelets, Kittlitz's murrelets, murres and black-legged kittiwakes. Tens of thousands of jaegers and short-tailed shearwaters fly here during the summer from their Australian nesting grounds. Savannah sparrows fledge here in July and other species include northern fulmars and Aleutian terns. From Kodiak the ferry passes through Marmot Bay where black oystercatchers are abundant. Common and red-throated loons, mergansers, and harlequin ducks are also abundant.
Take the Ferry from Kodiak to Chignik and Sand Point (+)
Take the Ferry from Kodiak to Chignik and Sand Point (-)
Between Kodiak and Chignik, pass through Shelikof Strait. Watch rocky crags for peregrin falcons, gyrfalcons, and merlins. Northern harriers glide along beaches and lowlands. The nearshore islands and islets provide breeding sites for least, crested, parakeet and rhinoceros auklets, which venture offshore to feed. Ancient, Kittlitz's and marbled murrelets also breed here. Marbled murrelets, which elsewhere in their range nest in the tops of old-growth trees, nest here on rocky plateaus. Red-faced and pelagic cormorants are common along this stretch, resting on protruding rocks, dock pilings and even floating debris. The brief stop in Chignik is just long enough for a walk through town. Birding in the brush will turn up a variety of songbirds, including golden-crowned sparrows, yellow warblers and violet-green swallows.
Ferry from Sand Point to King Cove, Cold Bay and False Pass (+)
Ferry from Sand Point to King Cove, Cold Bay and False Pass (-)
Many other bird species may be viewed along the ferry route from Sand Point to False Pass: belted kingfisher, black-billed magpie, hermit thrush, robin, winter wren, orange-crowned, yellow and Wilson's warblers, northern waterthrush; savannah, fox and song sparrows, Lapland longspur, and common and hoary redpolls. Watch for gray-crowned rosy-finches and snow buntings along the rocky cliff faces. While in each port, bundle up in layers and raingear, and watch for pigeon guillemots and horned puffins that nest under the docks. Listen for their squeals and whistles and watch for them bringing small fish back to their chicks. Watch for scoters, eiders, long-tailed and harlequin ducks, cormorants, loons, grebes, and kittiwakes. Emperor geese and rock sandpipers forage and roost on nearby beaches. As you leave Cold Bay, watch for seabird communities on and near Deer Island, and at Morzhovoi Bay, near Amagat Island, a seabird-nesting island topped by a dome-shaped peak. At False Pass, you have officially arrived at the Aleutian Islands. Several land bird species, including yellow warblers and willow ptarmigans, reach the end of their ranges here and will not be seen further west in the Aleutians. Along Unimak Pass watch for tufted and horned puffins flying in mixed groups with murres. As evening falls, watch for fulmars and shearwaters.
Continue on the Ferry to False Pass, Akutan and Dutch Harbor (+)
Continue on the Ferry to False Pass, Akutan and Dutch Harbor (-)
Short-tailed shearwaters, common along coastal waters of most eastern Aleutian Islands, are the most abundant bird species in Unimak Pass. Black-legged kittiwakes, northern fulmars, tufted puffins and whiskered auklets are also found in the pass, along with murres and crested auklets. The ferry docks in Dutch Harbor near the north end of Amaknak Island. If you plan to explore on your own, make your first order of business getting a land access permit. The permit gives permission to hike off area roads or to drive on Ballyhoo Mountain or Strawberry Hill, on property owned by the Ounalashka Corp. During weekday working hours, permits may be obtained in town at the Ounalashka Corp. building, 400 Salmon Way; for information, call (907) 581-1276. Permits are also available at the Aleutian World War II National Historic Center, less than a mile from the ferry dock. Half a mile from the ferry dock, a side road leads to 1,634-foot-high Mount Ballyhoo, site of the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area. Mount Ballyhoo offers a prime vantage point for viewing the area, as well as for up-close views of bald eagle nesting areas.
Dutch Harbor — Undiscovered, Unforgettable, Unalaska (+)
Dutch Harbor — Undiscovered, Unforgettable, Unalaska (-)
Unalaska is a birder's paradise, with more than 100 species, some of them rare and unique to the Chain, including whiskered auklets and ancient murrelets. Red-legged kittiwakes may also be found here. Bald eagles are numerous. Short-tailed shearwaters are among the area's most common birds and can travel in massive mega-flocks. From Airport Beach Road, trails leading off the main road will take you around the coastline at Bunker Hill. A walk along Bunker Hill trail is rich in bird and other wildlife sightings, including fox, harbor seals, harbor porpoise and numerous seabirds, including gulls, cormorants, marbled murrelets, pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers. Bald eagles nest on the cliff sides, and on the eastern side of Bunker Hill. Look also for tufted and horned puffins, black oystercatchers, red-faced cormorants, mergansers, harlequins and other ducks, as well as pigeon guillemots. Songbirds include snow bunting, Lapland longspur, redpolls, song sparrow, winter wren, bank swallow, American dipper and the distinctively colorful, delightfully common gray-crowned rosy-finch.
Unalaska & Summer Bay (+)
Unalaska & Summer Bay (-)
Spend another day birding in Unalaska and consider a trip to Summer Bay, on the western shore of Unalaska Island, to view Steller sea lions, tufted puffins and - just maybe - some whiskered auklets. The whiskered auklet is found in only two places: in an arc from the Aleutians through the Commander Islands, and in the Kuril Islands between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan. The birds breed on the rocky islands, and feed on nearby tide rips. At least some stay close by year-round, nesting in August. Complete your week-long birding adventure along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Chain with a flight back to Anchorage.