It was early April and the sound of honking high overhead lifted my eyes and my spirits. The strong “V” formation of Canadian geese I viewed in the distance was the first sure sign of spring!
Many people don’t realize that Alaska is the destination and spring/summer nesting grounds for a huge number of migratory birds from all up and down North and South America and even Asia and Africa. Alaska is home to a minimum of at least 470 different bird species, with over half of them being migratory.
The birds that make Alaska their summer home often travel thousands of miles via five different routes, called “fly-ways”, to arrive at their nesting sites each spring. Along with year round residents such as Bald eagles and ravens, this multitude of birds makes bird-watching in Alaska a popular summer activity.
Alaska’s migratory population includes literally all of its water fowl and sea birds and nearly fifty percent of its land birds.
Over the following weeks as the last vestiges of winter finally gave way to spring; my small farm perched on a hillside overlooking the Matanuska Valley witnessed the arrival of a vast assortment of ducks, geese – including Snow geese, my favorite species, and even swans.
Our resident pair of Goshawks returned to their summer nest at the back of our property and took up regular rounds over the territory they consider their own hunting grounds. Fortunately, they are not a large enough raptor species to be a threat to our cats, dogs or baby goats.
Finally, towards the end of April, I heard a long-anticipated sound. It reminds me of a deep, tenor and bass-toned brass band in the sky. The sound these spectacular big birds make resonates for up to two miles. They often fly low over the tree-tops of our hillside, heading for the wetlands over the next ridge, which make watching them one of the highlights of the migration season. Yes, the Sand Hill cranes have returned to the Mat-Su Valley.
To get to Alaska, it is estimated that these birds fly up to 400 miles per day during their migration flight. At least a third of the entire North American population of Sand Hill cranes breed, nest and summer in the forests and wetlands of Canada and Alaska.
Most migratory birds will have arrived in Alaska by the end of May. Large to small, tundra swans to hummingbirds; they have settled in once again from the boreal forests and fjords of southeast Alaska, across the lush mountains, river valleys and ocean shores of south-central and western Alaska to the tundra plains and marshes of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and across the Interior.
They will stay, all summer and into the fall, raising their young and thriving – each species in a unique ecosystem ideal to its specific needs. I’ve often wondered what instinct allows such a wide variety of birds to know exactly where to go in such an overwhelmingly huge expanse of land.
Although I love the birds that live near my own home; another of my favorite Alaskan birds must be mentioned, too. It is the comical and colorful Puffin.
Puffins are one of the most popular birds to Alaska’s tourist population. It is actually a sea bird most of the year and only a summer visitor to Alaska. In Alaska, Puffins breed on coastal islands and headlands from Forrester Island in southeastern Alaska to Cape Lisburne on the far north Chukchi Sea Coast. Rookeries in Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound are famous tour boat destinations where guests can see these birds in large numbers as they raise their young and feed in local waters. In winter, Puffins disperse over large areas of the Central North Pacific Ocean. These birds swim much better than they fly and spend their winters over deep water.
In late autumn, the migration repeats as nearly 250 different bird species take wing over a period of weeks and head off down the West Coast, across the arctic tundra and over the Canadian Yukon towards distant and far warmer winter homes. We look forward to their inevitable return next spring.