Alaska is a top destination for birders and it’s easy to see why. The state provides ideal nesting grounds for many bird species and there are huge gatherings of migrant birds populating the area. Alaska can be considered an excellent place for all kinds of outdoor adventurers given the enormous wild landscape awaiting exploration. If you’re primarily interested in the birds found in Alaska, this article should help you. We’ll take a close look at the best birds that can be spotted in the state’s vast habitats including shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl.
Before you embark on a long birding trip, make sure you’re prepared by getting the right equipment such as:
- Spotting Scope
Most birdwatching enthusiasts already own quality binoculars but many of them may not be aware of the importance of having a spotting scope as well. This is a powerful tool that’s focused on quality optics to get superior precision during long-distance magnification that’s simply not possible with binoculars. We recommend the Roxant authentic spotting scope that’s particularly useful to see shorebirds off-coast.
- Field Guide
Due to the prevalence of smartphone apps, birders nowadays may no longer see it as a requirement to get a paper-based field guide. However, it’s still a better experience if you choose to go down this route. Consider this updated Birds of Alaska guide with excellent illustrations and lots of valuable bird information.
- Hand Warmer
A trip in Alaska can be quite taxing on a birder’s hands, especially when encountering bad weather. Stay prepared with some natural air-activated hand warmers that will tackle that uncomfortable cold sensation seeping into your hands after extended use of binoculars or other tools.
1. Bristle-thighed Curlew
Alaska is the only known nesting place for the rare Bristle-thighed curlew. This is a unique shorebird that relies on steep hilly areas in western parts of the state for their breeding grounds. The Bristle-thighed curlew has a flightless molt and a long bill. The bird’s plumage can easily remind you of the whimbrel’s look but there are some notable differences. A simple way to distinguish the Bristle-thighed curlew from other shorebirds is to check for larger buff spots and a pale orange rump.
2. Arctic Tern
As its name suggests, this tern species breeds in Arctic regions. Numerous populations can also be found in Alaska in the summer. The Arctic tern has a slender appearance with silvery plumage and a long, forked tail. Breeding adults are also more distinctive due to their full black caps contrasting with the orange bill. It’s rare to see an Arctic tern alone as this bird prefers foraging in large colonies. This tern species is also beautiful to watch in-flight when it shows off its broad angular wings.
3. Orange-crowned Warbler
Among the breeding birds of Alaska, you can also discover warblers when exploring the state’s forests. A notable species is the orange-crowned warbler. This tiny bird’s plumage features a mix of gray and olive-green tones. True to its name, the warbler has a distinctive orangish crown patch that’s very challenging to see due to being hidden away most of the time. Adult birds are very active and can be spotted flitting rapidly through forest vegetation. Orange-crowned warblers can be recognized by their high and sharp call notes.
4. Bonaparte’s Gull
Gulls have a considerable presence in Alaska. Some species are more eye-catching to look for. A good example is the Bonaparte’s gull with its complete black head contrasting with the white body and gray wings. The bird’s legs are also noticeably redder compared to nonbreeding gulls. You can search for Bonaparte’s gulls on ocean coasts as well as along rivers and lakes in Alaska. This is one of the smallest species of gulls so it’s not surprising to appear more agile in flight, similar to terns.
5. Harlequin Duck
Alaska is one of the best places to see the harlequin duck in its breeding season. This elegant waterfowl sports a unique patterned plumage with colorful markings in shades of slate blue, white, and chestnut. Keep in mind that only the male duck shows this kind of attractive appearance while the female has a plain brown plumage. It seems like a fitting bird to search for in Alaska considering how its extravagant breeding look is the ideal match for the state’s dramatic landscapes.
6. White-winged Scoter
A visit to Alaska can be a delightful experience for birders interested in waterfowl. Check out the white-winged scoter that’s not as common in the US compared to similar species. This is a large sea duck that prefers inland lakes for its breeding grounds. Male white-winged scoters have a mostly black appearance except for white patches in the wing and around the eye. That makes the eye of this bird stand out due to an upturned comma shape. While during the winter, the white-winged scoter forages for mussels, it switches to crustaceans and insects in the summer.
7. Common Murre
Similar in looks to a penguin, the common murre is an abundant species that can be encountered in Alaska. The state is one of the only regions where this bird can be seen in its dashing breeding plumage. The auk shows off a fully black head with a sleek, pale eyering extending to the side. Common murres nest in colonies in areas such as cliff ledges that aren’t easily accessible. You can hear flocks of birds making distinctive guttural calls from a considerable distance. As this seabird spends a lot of time off the coast, it’s worth investing in a performant spotting scope to see it clearly.
8. Pigeon Guillemot
Pigeon guillemots are permanent residents of Alaska’s coasts. These seabirds are part of the puffin family and can be recognized by their fully black plumage shown in the breeding season. Other noticeable characteristics are the thin bill, red legs, and white patches on the wings. Juvenile pigeon guillemots feature smudgy bodies with many more white patches. Compared to similar auks, this bird tends to stay closer to shore so birders can observe it more easily.
9. Long-tailed Duck
As its name suggests, this duck has an extravagantly long tail that gives it a unique appearance. Only the male bird has the slender tail that’s characteristic of the species. Depending on the season, the long-tailed duck can also show different plumage styles. Nonbreeding males have a mix of mostly white with some brown tones while the breeding season gives the ducks a mirror image with more prominent darker colors. Long-tailed ducks are not very common to see in the US but the Alaskan state represents a good place to start.
10. Sooty Grouse
A rare bird that can occasionally visit Alaska, the sooty grouse is well worth the challenge of finding it. This beautiful game bird thrives in coniferous woodlands. The male grouse performs mating displays for females that will often involve perching in trees. Sooty grouses in the breeding season are most impressive to watch. The male bird becomes a distinctive dark color while the yellow throat patch and crest stand out. Female grouses show a plain speckled brown appearance. Despite the loud hooting calls of this bird, the sooty grouse isn’t easy to track down.
11. American Three-toed Woodpecker
The American three-toed woodpecker is very common in Alaska. This is a small species that will usually hang around in young burned areas of the forest. These woodpeckers may appear small and frail but they’re actually very powerful when it comes to bark foraging. Both male and female birds show black-and-white plumage. The key difference between the sexes is the presence of a small yellow crest on the male. American three-toed woodpeckers can be found year-round throughout Alaska’s forests. Check the trees for places with flaked off bark that can indicate the presence of the bird.
12. White-winged Crossbill
While most Alaska birders focus on waterbirds, the state’s forests shouldn’t be missed for some eye-catching bird discoveries. A nice example is the white-winged crossbill which is a permanent resident in the northern forests of North America, including Alaska. This stocky finch shows white patches on its black wings. Male birds have a vibrant rosy-red plumage while females are yellowish with lots of brown streaks. White-winged crossbills live in chattering flocks and can be very interesting to observe, especially when hanging upside down. They feed primarily on conifer seeds.
13. Pine Siskin
The breeding range of the pine siskin extends from Canada towards the open woodlands of Alaska. This tiny bird can be harder to find than other birds due to its unpredictable nomadic traveling style. It usually moves around the continent according to the availability of its favorite seed crops. Pine siskins are a finch species with a very pointy bill and multiple brown streaks on its body. Adult birds are also notable for having tinges of yellow on the wings and tail. Birders will often hear the pine siskin’s wheezy twitter before obtaining a visual location.
14. Steller’s Eider
Some birds in Alaska can’t be found anywhere else in the US. It’s the case of the Steller’s eider duck. This is an endangered species that can be found in arctic regions. One of the best places to see it is the Alaskan peninsula during the winter but this type of eider can also be spotted in northern Alaska during the summer breeding season. Male Steller’s eiders show off rusty orange underparts and patterned upperparts in shades of white and black. Note the steel-gray bill of the duck. These birds are spectacular to watch when diving synchronously in the water after their prey.
15. Black Oystercatcher
Black oystercatchers can be seen year-round in Alaska’s coastal regions. These shorebirds have a fairly restricted range and birders can have a hard time getting a good look at them. This is due to the black oystercatcher’s tendency to get alarmed unless you keep a considerable distance. Adult birds can be recognized by their dark appearance, yellow eyes, and bright red bill. The black-and-brown plumage makes the shorebird easily camouflaged in its natural rocky environment. Search for black oystercatchers foraging for mussels on falling tides.
16. Kittlitz’s Murrelet
An oblong-shaped seabird, the Kittlitz’s murrelet can be often seen along Alaska’s coasts. The species doesn’t have numerous populations but the birds spend most of their time in more remote regions far from direct human contact. Kittlitz’s murrelets have a compact body form with mottled brown plumage in the breeding season. The rest of the time, this murrelet species has a fairly indistinct black-and-white appearance. It can be spotted foraging in coastal glacial outflows and has solitary nesting grounds.
17. Horned Puffin
Similar in looks to the clownlike Atlantic puffin, the horned species can be considered a highlight bird to look for in Alaska. It boasts distinctive small fleshy spikes in the eye area that give the seabird its name. Horned puffins can be seen during their breeding season most easily but birders can also search for them off-coast in the winter. A spotting scope or a more planned sea trip for birding could be required to get a proper view of these puffins.
18. Pelagic Cormorant
With an elegant iridescent green-blue neck and dark appearance, the pelagic cormorant represents a delightful sight for any Alaska birder. This small species can be usually encountered close to shore despite what its name may suggest. The cormorants have a year-round presence in Alaska where they prefer coastal cliffs and rocky waters. Pelagic cormorants aren’t as social as other species of cormorants so it isn’t surprising to find just single birds or pairs. To avoid confusion in mixed flocks, check for distinctive features like the long tail, very thin neck, and narrow wings.
19. Varied Thrush
The dense forests of Alaska provide the ideal breeding grounds for lots of birds in the summer, including varied thrushes. This species is known for its ringing song and handsome plumage. Adult males show off a color blend of ashy-gray and fiery orange that makes the bird hard to confuse. As this is a ground forager, look for varied thrushes in wet understories of coniferous forests. It’s recommended to listen closely for the bird’s simple vocalizations to find its exact location. The song of the varied thrush is often performed from the lower layers of the forest.
20. Common Redpoll
Common redpolls can be usually found in the US exclusively in the winter season. Alaska is an exception as the bird resides permanently in the southern half of the state. The northern half is also important for providing ideal summer breeding habitats. The common redpoll is an energetic bird whose bill seems perfectly suited for eating seeds. Male birds can be differentiated by the females through their pink-washed chest. Both sexes feature a distinctive red crown and brown streaky plumage.
21. Bar-tailed Godwit
The state of Alaska is home to many handsome wading birds, including the bar-tailed godwit. This bird can be identified by its reddish breeding plumage and bicolored bill. Outside the mating season, bar-tailed godwits are grayish with brown patches. This bird is also attractive to see during flight where you can observe its white wing stripe and barred tail details. The bar-tailed godwit spends most of its time probing the mud of brackish coastal lagoons in search of its favorite aquatic invertebrate prey. Birds are frequently gathered in flocks when foraging.
22. Wandering Tattler
Alaska’s rocky coasts provide the perfect habitat for wandering tattlers. These yellow-legged shorebirds show off a barred gray plumage during the breeding season. Notice the way the bird’s tail bobs up and down during walking. Wandering tattlers are attracted to the intertidal zone where they hunt for their food. You can usually find wandering tattlers in Alaska during the summer if you visit their nesting grounds in the state’s mountainous regions. The name ‘tattler’ refers to the distinctive sound of the bird’s alerting calls.
23. Black Turnstone
Another great shorebird to see in Alaska, the black turnstone can easily blend on rocky coasts thanks to its dark brown plumage with white underparts. This bird has a restricted range so you may not usually find it unless you visit Alaska’s coasts. Western and northern parts of the state can be explored in the summer while the southern coasts should be visited in the winter to increase your chances of spotting the black turnstone. It could be well worth seeing these birds in the breeding season as they frequently perform mating flight displays.
24. Red-faced Cormorant
The Alaskan peninsula should be definitely explored by birders who want to spot rare birds. A good example is the red-faced cormorant that has numerous populations there. This species closely resembles the pelagic cormorant but it stands out through its brightly colored face and thicker bill and neck. The seabird is also quite distinctive due to its glossy plumage and double crest. Colonies of red-faced cormorants choose precarious cliffs for their nesting grounds. Birds have started to expand their range to the nearby southern Alaskan coastline.
25. Fox Sparrow
The dense thickets of Alaska can be populated by many small birds such as the fox sparrow. This species visits the state during the summer breeding season. The bird has variable plumage color as some subspecies can be foxy red while others are grayish or brown. Regardless of color, fox sparrows show characteristic streaks, more prominent on the bird’s underparts. As they’re ground foragers, you can expect to see this little sparrow searching for food through leaf litter in the forest. Males are known for performing a beautiful whistling song.
26. Parakeet Auklet
A common little seabird that has small breeding colonies in Alaska, the parakeet auklet has some distinctive characteristics that birders may find interesting. As its name implies, this species is part of the auk family of birds. The parakeet auklet shows a black-and-white appearance with a vibrant orange bill that’s almost circular-shaped. One particularly noticeable feature is the white streak behind the eye that both breeding and nonbreeding birds have. Even though parakeet auklets don’t live in large flocks, they have numerous scattered populations, especially in southern parts of Alaska.
27. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Fork-tailed storm-petrels enjoy the cold waters of the Alaskan coast. These seabirds travel in groups quite far to the sea in search of their favorite fish prey. They nest in rocky cliffs where the birds can be most easily spotted during the summer. To see fork-tailed storm-petrels in action on the sea, you’ll most likely have to take a pelagic trip. The species can be distinguished from other seabirds by its characteristic forked tail that’s sometimes difficult to see. The fork-tailed storm-petrel has a steep forehead and its plumage is bluish-gray.
28. Northern Waterthrush
Wooded swamps can turn up some interesting species for birders. The northern waterthrush is a solid example. It visits Alaska during the summer and can be recognized by its brown overall plumage with a pale eyebrow and streaked underparts. This warbler species has particularly long legs. Birdwatching enthusiasts will find it easier to listen for the northern waterthrush’s rich singing when it comes to locating it. As opposed to other waterthrushes, this bird prefers habitats with standing water. It mostly feeds on insects and small salamanders.
29. Rusty Blackbird
A rare sight in recent times, the populations of rusty blackbirds suffer from a great decline. These birds can be spotted in Alaska’s forests in the summer. True to their name, these blackbirds can have rusty edges on their black feathers. Breeding males are more dapper in full glossy black plumage with iridescent qualities. Females have a paler rusty appearance. To make it less challenging to find, it’s a good idea to listen for the rusty blackbird’s distinctive song that’s similar to creaking hinges.
30. Northern Wheatear
Not a common bird in Alaska, the northern wheatear can sometimes visit the state during the breeding season. It’s adapted for rocky tundra regions with barren slopes so those areas should be explored by birders hoping to find a northern wheatear. This chat species is not particularly conspicuous in terms of plumage as it’s pale gray overall with a buffy pale peach throat. Northern wheatears can be recognized by the black mask appearing in the mating season but the bird is most conspicuous in flight when you get the chance to observe its distinctive tail pattern.