Kenai Peninsula Wildlife
Land Mammals | Marine Mammals | Birds | Salmon | Aquatic Invertebrates

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Both black and brown

bears spend six to

eight months a year

feeding heavily, and

the rest of the year

fasting. They store

this food energy as

fat, and summer in

Alaska is a critical

feeding time.

 

 

Land Mammals

Bears

Both black and brown (grizzly) bears are found on the Kenai Peninsula. Overall, black bears are more abundant, although in some areas and times brown bears predominate.

Black bears are about two and a half feet tall at the shoulder and are about five feet long. They are considerably smaller than brown bears and lack the brown bears’ distinctive shoulder humps. Black bears average about 200 pounds, but some older bears may reach 300 to 350 pounds or more. Brown bears average between 500 and 900 pounds, and some older males can reach 1,400 pounds.

 Both black and brown bears spend six to eight months a year feeding heavily, and the rest of the year fasting. They store this food energy as fat, and summer in Alaska is a critical feeding time.

 Bears are omnivorous, eating meat and vegetation according to season and location. In spring, they feed on a wide variety of green vegetation, supplemented by moose calves and carrion. In summer and fall, bears with access to salmon streams gorge on fish. Berries—cranberry, currant, blueberry, devil’s club and others—provide a critical carbohydrate boost. Throughout the summer, bears will dig up marmots, till meadows for roots, and tear apart logs for insects.

Don’t look for bears in the late fall and winter; they are almost always tucked away in dens hibernating. Hibernating bears are biological wonders. They don’t suffer bone loss, muscle atrophy or bedsores the way an inactive, bedridden person would. They don’t eat or drink water, but their nutritional needs are met. Bears lose about 20 percent of their body weight during hibernation, and regain this over the summer. Physiologists and medical researchers are studying bears for insights into osteoporosis, kidney disorders and human sleep.

Bears are among the few animals that gestate young—a high-energy-demand state—while denned up and fasting. Bear cubs are born mid-winter, tiny and blind, and nurse through the winter, sharing their mother’s fat reserves through her rich milk. Litters range from one to four cubs; two are most common. Mother bears are famously protective of their cubs. Cubs typically separate from their mothers as two-year-olds. Some brown bear cubs stay with their mothers for three to five years. Some adult female bears live to be more than 20 years old. Except for females with cubs, they are usually solitary animals and avoid other bears. Exceptions occur where food sources are concentrated, such as salmon streams. Bears develop a social hierarchy in these situations.


 

In the early 1980s,

Kenai Peninsula

wolves began to

show signs of being

infested with dog

lice.

 

 

Wolves

Wolves are not commonly seen on the Kenai Peninsula, although they are fairly abundant (their population is estimated at around 200). They travel the backcountry in packs of seven to twelve, preying on moose, caribou, Dall sheep and mountain goats. They also hunt marmots, beavers and other small mammals.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the Kenai Peninsula’s wolves were exterminated by miners, prospectors, and homesteaders. Between 1915 and 1965, wolves were only occasionally documented in the region. Between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, however, wolf populations increased as the animals moved into suitable habitats, reproduced, and established territories.

Wolves are social animals. Packs are usually family groups that include parents and young of the year, but larger packs may include pups for two or three litters, from more than one female, and some yearlings that stay with the pack.

In the early 1980s, Kenai Peninsula wolves began to show signs of being infested with dog lice. Despite efforts at treatment, the animals continue to struggle with lice, which damage their fur and cause severe itching.

What to look for: Wolves are very elusive, but it may be possible to see wolves in the early morning or evening. If you are hiking, look for dog-like scat filled with hair.

What to listen for: Wolves may also be heard howling, most often in the evening or at night.
 


 

 Coyotes

Coyotes are also fairly abundant on the Kenai Peninsula, but their presence here may be a fairly recent event. After the extermination of wolves on the peninsula around the turn of the 20th century, the region’s coyote population began to rise. This expansion was part of a continent wide increase in coyote numbers. Today, these human-tolerant canids are particularly abundant at the edges of the human world—a place that wolves avoid.

Weighing between 20 and 40 pounds, coyotes are about one-third the weight of wolves. They average around two feet high at the shoulder, and, including tail, are about 4 feet long. In winter, their grayish-tan coats are usually lighter than they are in summer.

In general, coyotes are small-game specialists, feeding on hares, marmots, small rodents, muskrats, and even insects, berries and fish, although they do occasionally kill a large mammal such as a moose calf or a Dall sheep. They also scavenge carrion from wolf kills or winter-killed animals. Coyotes are not social to the extent that wolves are, although they do sometimes hunt cooperatively, and family groups stay together through the summer. Youngof previous years will occasionally help care for pups.

What to listen for: Coyote howls are higher-pitched than those of wolves.


 

River otters can run

as fast as a human,

and on snow they

can reach speeds of

15 miles per hour by

alternately running

and sliding on their

bellies. They can

swim about six miles

an hour—faster for

short distances by

porpoising at the

surface.

 

River Otters

Fairly common along the shores and rivers of the Kenai Peninsula, the river otter is the same playful aquatic weasel found throughout North America. River otters live in freshwater systems and in coastal waters, denning just inside forest edges and foraging on beaches and close to shore. They average three to five feet in length and weigh 15 to 35 pounds.

River otters are agile on land and in the water. They can run as fast as a human, and on snow they can reach speeds of 15 miles per hour by alternately running and sliding on their bellies. They can swim about six miles an hour—faster for short distances by propoising at the surface. Otters eat fish, shellfish, shrimp, sea urchins and virtually anything else aquatic that they can catch.

Otters may live in close proximity to humans, but they tend to be wary. They are delightful to watch when foraging and will usually come ashore or climb on a dock to eat their catch. They’re very social, sometimes seen in groups of five or more. Otters play often, wrestling, hiding and chasing each other on land and in the water.

What to look for: River otters are smaller and darker than sea otters and much smaller than harbor seals. Like other members of the weasel family, they are slender and slinky. They may roll at the surface, but they don’t swim on their backs like sea otters. Their dives are briefer than those of sea otters.

What to listen for: Otters are vocal and have a range of sounds. They growl and whine, and when alarmed will snort a sneezing, "hah." They often call back and forth with bird-like chirps when separated.


 

Red Squirrels
Wherever you find spruce trees on the Kenai Peninsula, you’ll find red squirrels. The small, oil-rich seeds of the spruce provide a critical food for these hardy arboreal rodents, especially in winter, when other foods such as berries and fungus are scarce. In fact, red squirrels spend most of the late summer and early fall cutting green spruce cones for winter, and stashing them in semi-subterranean caches that are sometimes made up of piles of previous-years’ discarded cone scales.

What to Look For: Red squirrels do not hibernate, so watch for their tracks and cone cuttings throughout the winter.

What to listen for: Like most other species of squirrel, red squirrels are noisy. Your entrance into a squirrel’s personal space (which can be quite big!) will often elicit indignant squeaks and loud, rattling chatter as it perches on a branch stub out of reach and flicks its tail in alarm. In time, especially if you retreat a bit, the squirrel will often go back to what it was doing before, giving you a chance to observe its behavior.

   
 

Dall sheep and

mountain goats share

the same general

range of distribution

on the Kenai; they are

primarily found in the

high Kenai Mountains

in the northeastern

part of the peninsula.

Bird Point and Cooper

Landing are good

places from which to

look for them.

 

 

Dall Sheep and Mountain Goats

The Kenai Peninsula hosts two species of white, mountaineering ungulates (hooved mammals): the Dall sheep and the mountain goat. Both species share the same general range of distribution on the Kenai; they are primarily found in the high Kenai Mountains in the northeastern part of the peninsula. Bird Point and Cooper Landing are good places from which to look for them. So when you spot a group of white critters grazing on a mountainside, how can you tell if they’re goats or sheep? One clue is habitat. Although both species can occasionally be seen together on the same mountainside, sheep tend to prefer drier south-facing slopes. Goats can tolerate deeper snows on the wetter north-facing slopes.

A closer look reveals more clues. Mountain goats (both females and males) have black, sharp, slightly curving horns, while Dall sheep horns are lighter in color and, on the males, can curve in full circles. Mountain goats are more yellowish in color and "squarer" in appearance, and seen from the front are much narrower than Dall sheep. Mountain goat hair, especially in the winter, is considerably longer than that of Dall sheep, and unlike sheep, goats have distinct "beards" under their chins.

Both sheep and goats rely on their agility and strength to clamber through the steep, rocky terrain that protects them from predators such as wolves. Both will graze and rest on moderate slopes but generally keep an escape route to steeper terrain.

Dall Sheep Dall sheep are closely related to bighorn sheep, and are part of the global genus (Ovis) that includes the domestic sheep.

Like mountain goat nannies, Dall sheep ewes flock in spring to rugged "lambing cliffs" Here, the young lambs can gain strength and agility among the precipices, where the danger of a fall is offset by the protection from predators. Rams form their own groups that travel together, meeting up with ewe flocks only in mating season.

In winter, Dall sheep move to "winter ranges"—windswept areas where snow does not drift too deep and the animals can reach the dry grasses and sedges that make up their winter diet.

Mountain Goats Mountain goats are only distantly related to domestic goats. They evolved in the Old World and migrated to North America about 100,000 years ago when Alaska and Asia were connected during the ice age. They’re the only living representatives of their genus (Oreamnos) in the world.

Nanny and billy mountain goats segregate in spring and summer. Nannies with newborns band together and form "nursery flocks." These groups may include 20 or 30 animals, but tend to break into smaller groups of five to 10 goats that separate and regroup. Billies are found solo or in bachelor groups of a half-dozen animals.

In winter, mountain goats head down the mountains to the protection of the high forests, where they feed on rough forage such as mountain hemlock and blueberry bushes.


Alaska averages about 500 moose-vehicle accidents per year, with many of those on the Kenai Peninsula. Analysis of collision data shows that most vehicle-moose accidents occur at dawn and dusk when moose are on the move. Drivers should slow down and pay close attention to the road and roadside, being alert for moose. if you spot a moose on the side of the road, watch out for more. Calves will often run after cows across roads.

 

 

Moose  Huge and imposing, gangly yet oddly graceful, moose are among the quintessential animals of the north country around the globe. Moose are abundant on the Kenai Peninsula, where they’re not restricted to backcountry habitats—they often venture into suburban areas and are even known to stroll city streets. Since they’re common, human-tolerant, and active year-round, it would be unusual to spend more than a couple of days wildlife watching on the Kenai Peninsula without seeing moose.

Moose haven’t always been so abundant here. In the early to mid 1900s, populations were declining. In 1947, a huge wildfire burned 300,000 acres of spruce forest near Sterling. In the years following the fire, willow, birch, and alder brush—excellent moose habitat—grew in the burned area. Moose populations increased in response.

In summer, moose can seem almost aquatic. They spend a great deal of time wading and swimming in lakes and ponds, foraging for tender aquatic plants such as horsetail, sedge, and pondweed; they’ll even submerge completely to get at a particularly tasty mouthful. Other summer foods include birch, aspen and willow leaves, and grasses.

Winter is a challenging time for moose. It isn’t the cold that daunts them— their huge bodies and thick pelts keep them plenty warm—it’s predators and food shortages. Heavy snow can make moose vulnerable to wolves. And their winter food, consisting mostly of coarse browse such as willow, birch and aspen twigs and bark, has a very low calorie-to-weight ratio. Moose must browse constantly in the winter. In some densely-populated sites, their busy teeth clip brush into a hedge. The hedge height varies, depending on how deep the snow was when the moose was browsing.

What to Look For: Alaskan moose are the largest moose in North America, and Kenai Peninsula moose are known as some of the largest in Alaska. Prime-condition bulls can weigh over 1,500 pounds and stand over seven feet tall at the shoulders. Cows are smaller, weighing 800-1300 pounds. Only the males have antlers, but both sexes have dangling "dewlaps" of skin under their chins. The long, brown and gray hairs that make up their coats are hollow, giving them insulation and buoyancy.


 

1Caribou  Symbols of the wild north, caribou are a sought-after species for wildlife viewers on the Kenai Peninsula. These "wandering deer" are native to North America, Europe, and Asia.

Although native to the Kenai Peninsula, caribou were absent for about 50 years between the 1910s and 1960s. Releases of breeding stock in the 1960s established two herds: one in the mountains near Hope and one in the Kenai River flats area. In the 1980s, additional caribou were released in the Tustumena Lake/Caribou Hills region, eventually establishing three additional herds. They are generally most accessible for viewing in the Kenai/ Soldotna area.

Caribou spend most of their lives in open country such as tundra, with occasional trips into boreal forest. They are superbly adapted to cold, wind, and snow. Their coats are thick with hollow hairs, which provide outstanding insulation. Their large feet act as both snowshoes and shovels, helping them to travel efficiently, and also to dig down to their chief winter forage plants such as lichens (reindeer moss), dried sedges and grasses, and small shrubs. In summer they feed on willow, sedges, herbs, and mushrooms.

What to look for: Weighing 175-400 pounds, caribou are larger than black-tailed deer, but much smaller than moose. Their natty coffee-and-cream coats and magnificent summer racks are very distinctive, as are their oversized, splayed feet. Both male and female caribou grow antlers (males’ antlers are much larger). Pregnant females keep their antlers, while males and unpregnant females shed theirs in the winter or early spring.

What to listen for: If you’re fortunate enough to be close enough to a group of caribou on the move, listen for the loud clicking noises made by tendons rubbing on bones in their ankles.


 

Marine Mammals

Humpback Whales Humpback whales are the most commonly sighted and abundant large whales in the waters around the Kenai Peninsula. Watch for them in Resurrection Bay, in Kenai Fjords National Park, and outside of Kachemak Bay.

Most of Southcoastal Alaska’s humpback whales migrate, spending summers in food-rich northern waters and wintering in the warm waters off Hawaii, where they mate and give birth. Gestation takes about 11 months, so a female that mates one winter will return to the tropics the next year to have her calf. The 3,500-mile migration takes about a month each way. The whales feed heavily in Alaska, eating almost 1,000 pounds of food a day. This food energy is stored as blubber. In the winter the whales generally fast, living off their fat reserves.

What to listen for: The "whoosh" of the exhaled breath (the spout or blow) of a humpback can often be heard across the water. The smack of a whale’s tail and flippers on the surface and the splash of a breaching whale can also carry across the water.

What to look for: The distinct white puff of a spout is usually the first sign of a humpback whale and can be seen more than a mile away. The spray from the exhalation may linger for 10 or 15 seconds, standing out against the water as a misty plume about 10 feet high. The whale’s blowhole is located on the top of its head, and the low, dark shape of the head and the knobby blowhole can be seen as the whale spouts.

 In South coastal Alaska, feeding humpback whales usually surface, spout and breathe four or five times over a one to two minute period, then make a longer dive. The amount of time a feeding humpback spends submerged varies, depending on how deep it is feeding and the type of feeding activity. About five minutes is common. However, it’s not unusual to wait 15 minutes for a whale to surface, and an adult whale may stay down for over 30 minutes.

Whales rarely show their flukes when cruising just under the surface, but they often show them when making longer, deeper dives. When a whale first surfaces, note its direction of travel and try to anticipate where it will come up next. You will likely have several good opportunities to see the animal before it makes a longer dive. When it finally makes the deep dive you see its entire length—the rounded, rolling curve of the back, the small triangular dorsal fin, the tail stock or peduncle, and finally the massive flukes of the tail.


Unlike most other whales, belugas frequently venture
up rivers in pursuit of prey such as salmon and eulachon.

 

 

Beluga Belugas are small toothed whales that are adapted to life in ice-choked Arctic and subarctic waters. Their dorsal fin has evolved into a tough dorsal ridge that is used along with their head to break ice for breathing holes. Belugas are very gregarious, sometimes traveling and foraging in groups of more than 100.

The Cook Inlet belugas are geographically isolated and genetically distinct from other belugas. Their numbers and range have declined dramatically in the past couple of decades and in 2006 they were added as candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Unlike most other whales, belugas frequently venture up rivers in pursuit of prey such as salmon and eulachon (a type of smelt common in coastal Alaska). They’re known to eat a very wide variety of foods, including crustaceans, squid, and clams.

What to look for: Adult belugas are unmistakable: about 13 feet long, ivory white, with finless backs, they roll gently to the surface like smooth icebergs. Their heads are rather small, their necks are flexible, and their pectoral fins are long and pointed. Calves are born dark gray, and gradually whiten as they age. A beluga will be completely white by its 5th or 6th year.

What to listen for: Belugas are very vocal animals, producing a variety of grunts, clicks, chirps, and whistles that are used for navigating, finding prey, and communicating. Because of this, they have sometimes been called "sea canaries."


Killer whales in Alaska waters are either residents or transients (a third group, called off-shore, has rarely been documented in Alaska waters).

 

 

10

 Killer Whales Killer whales, also known as orcas, are found in all the world’s oceans. They are the largest members of the dolphin family. They live in small groups called "pods," which are usually made up of family members from juveniles (called calves) to adult males (called bulls).

Like other dolphins and porpoises, killer whales are capable of navigating and hunting under water in complete darkness using sound and echolocation, much like sonar. They emit a series of clicking sounds that they direct forward in a focused beam. They listen for the echoes of their sounds bouncing off objects in their surroundings and can judge the size, distance and speed of swimming prey.

1Killer whales in Alaska waters are either residents or transients (a third group, called off-shore, has rarely been documented in Alaska waters). These groups are genetically different and have distinct foraging and social behaviors and vocalizations.

Resident killer whales feed on fish, primarily salmon. They are very vocal and have sophisticated calls. Resident pods are more stable than transient pods. They often number more than 10 animals and can be as large as 50 animals.

Transients feed on marine mammals. Because marine mammals can hear echolocation sounds and whale vocalizations, transient killer whales tend to be very quiet and usually vocalize only after making a kill. Transients live in small, dynamic pods of three to seven animals.

What to look for: Killer whales are 25 to 30 feet in length. They will often cruise at the surface, spouting every few seconds as they swim. The black back, white eye patch, and striking triangular dorsal fin (the large fin in the center of the whale’s back) are characteristics of the killer whale. Adult males’ dorsal fins—dramatic triangles that can be six feet tall—are much larger than those of adult females. To identify individual whales, biologists use identifying characteristics—size, shape and distinctive scars or marks—of the dorsal fin and the gray "saddle patch" on the back behind the dorsal fin.


 

 Porpoises Two species of porpoise are regularly seen in the waters off the Kenai Peninsula: Dall’s porpoises, and harbor porpoises.

Dall’s porpoises are usually the more visible of the two porpoises of this region. They typically travel in groups of two to 20 animals. These compact, muscular porpoises rival killer whales as the fastest creatures in Alaska waters. Their black backs and white bellies and flanks resemble the markings of killer whales, but they are much smaller, averaging about six feet in length and weighing about 300 pounds.

What to look for: Dall’s porpoises often "bow ride," a behavior that is ideal for wildlife watching. The bow of a moving ship creates a pressure wave in the water, something akin to the blast of wind that follows a passing truck. Porpoises sidle up to a boat and swim just below the surface, riding in the pressure wave.

Harbor porpoises are dark gray or dark brown, with noticeably smaller dorsal fins than Dall’s porpoise fins. They are the smallest cetaceans in Alaska, averaging about 120 pounds. Although often described as shy, it may be more appropriate to say they are indifferent to boats and human activities. They do not bow ride.

What to look for: Fairly common in Southcentral waters, harbor porpoise are most often spotted when their round backs gently break the surface with rolling motions.


 

 Steller Sea Lions Steller sea lions are among coastal Alaska’s most watchable marine mammals. They are vocal, social, and fairly common around the Kenai Peninsula. Sea lions are fast swimmers and are graceful and powerful in the water. Because they can rotate their rear flippers forward to use as "hind legs," they are fairly agile on land. They "haul out" in large, noisy groups at traditionally used rock outcrops and beaches. They also haul out on buoys, where they may be seen bellowing and jockeying for the best spots.

Sea lions eat a variety of fish, from bottom-dwelling rockfish to salmon and herring. They also feed on squid and octopus. They forage from the intertidal zone to deep offshore waters. Although they have been documented diving as deep as 1,000 feet, feeding dives average about 60 feet.

What to look for: A splash at the surface may be your first indication of a sea lion—look for the large, triangular brown head and external ear flaps. You may also see a puff of breath as the animal exhales. Steller sea lions are brown or tan with large, prominent flippers. Averaging seven to nine feet in length and 600 to 1,500 pounds, sea lions are much larger than harbor seals. Seals are gray, spotted, and have a much rounder head profile without external ears.

What to listen for: When sea lions are hauled out on rocks, they can be quite vocal. They bellow, roar and growl, but do not bark. Haulouts can also be smelled up to a mile away. When sea lions are swimming, their breathing is audible, especially the exhalations.


 

 Harbor Seals Visitors to Southcoastal Alaska from coastal cities across the Northern Hemisphere may recognize the round head, big dark eyes and spotted gray coat of the harbor seal. Also known as common seals or hair seals, these marine mammals inhabit northern coastal waters around the world.

Harbor seals feed on fish, clams, mussels, and crustaceans such as shrimp. They are hunted and preyed upon by sharks and by transient killer whales. In May and June they tend to move to sheltered waterways such as the deep bays of Kenai Fjords National Park, where each female gives birth to a single pup, often on an iceberg. Harbor seals favor nearshore water and will also swim up rivers.

What to look for: Harbor seals are most often spotted as their round heads pop quietly above the water surface in a motion somewhat like that of a submarine periscope emerging for a quick look around. Curious but cautious, they are very quiet and rarely vocalize. They tend to swim solo, but concentrations of food can draw them together, and they often haul out in groups on sandbars, beaches or ice floes near glaciers. Ungainly on land, they look like fat sausages when they are at rest.


 

 Sea Otters Unlike their cousins, the river otters, sea otters are marine mammals and very rarely come ashore. They are most often seen floating on their backs amid kelp beds. Adult males weigh 70 to 90 pounds and are about four-and-a-half feet long. Females are about one-third smaller.

Sea otters eat almost any fish or shellfish they can catch. They consume the equivalent of about 20 percent of their body weight every day and can dive as deep as 250 feet when foraging. Tool-users, they sometimes lug rocks to the surface to use as anvils on which to bash and break shellfish. Because they have voracious appetites, sea otters have a profound effect on their environment, significantly reducing the numbers of prey animals, such as sea urchins, in an area.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Russian, American and British fur traders virtually wiped out sea otters in Alaska and along the Pacific Coast. By 1850 just a few isolated groups remained, mostly in the Aleutian Islands. Their habitat remained intact, so once protected from hunting, their populations rebounded.

What to look for: Sea otters are usually seen swimming or floating on their backs while grooming, resting or eating. They seldom swim on their stomachs, except just before they dive. Sea otters tend to be lighter in color than the smaller land otters. Look for the round head, significantly smaller than a seal’s, with triangular nose.


 

Birds

Bald Eagles Big, powerful, sharp-eyed and dominating, bald eagles are perhaps the most famous members of the Kenai Peninsula’s bird world. You may find them year-round, anywhere on the peninsula, from the high alpine to the river valleys, but they are most concentrated along the coast.

Most bald eagles are primarily fish hunters and carrion scavengers. Although they do make spectacular swooping flights to snatch small fish and unwary marmots, eagles are just as likely to steal other eagles’ food or scavenge a winter-killed mountain goat as they are to catch their own prey.

For the best eagle viewing, visit a salmon stream during spawning season, when scores at a time gather to feast. With a wingspan of up to 90 inches (7.5 feet) and weighing up to fourteen pounds, they will be the largest raptors (birds of prey) you’ll see. Females are slightly larger than males.

Eagles are monogamous and generally pair for life. They prefer to nest along rivers, lakes, or the ocean, and usually choose a large, prominent tree for a nest site. A pair will use the same nest year after year, repairing and adding to the nest platform—which can grow to the weight of a pickup truck.

Eagles can be seen on their nests in late May and early June, and they care for the chicks over the summer. The chicks fledge in August and September, just in time for autumn salmon runs.

Young bald eagles go through a gradual color change as they mature. In their first year, they are dark brown, with brown eyes and a brown bill. Second- and third-year birds develop a white "bib" that stands out against their dark belly feathers. The bib darkens over the next one to two years. The white head and tail develop around the fifth year. As an eagle matures, its bill and eyes gradually turn yellow.

What to look for: The striking white head of the mature bald eagle stands out like a white softball in the trees. A prime perch will often draw several birds, so look in the surrounding trees as well for white-headed adults and dark-headed youngsters. These birds may be scoping out a productive stretch of water or resting after feeding.


Gulls are among the most challenging of birds to identify, but because of their abundance they offer lots of opportunities to practice—and their visibility makes them great subjects for extended viewing.

 

 

Gulls For Kenai Peninsula wildlife watchers, gulls seem to be everywhere. Often gathered in large, raucous congregations, they are frequently dismissed as "just seagulls." Gulls are among the most challenging of birds to identify, but because of their abundance they offer lots of opportunities to practice—and their visibility makes them great subjects for extended viewing.

To start gull-watching, focus on adult birds (white bodies with gray wings) and pass on the more challenging juveniles (brownish). Once you’re familiar with the more common species, the rarer ones will stand out.

• Three common gulls are large (raven-sized) birds, about 24 inches long, with pink legs and yellow bills with red dots. Glaucous-winged gulls have gray wing tips. Herring gulls and Thayer’s gulls both have jet-black wingtips and are difficult to tell apart. Look into their eyes, if you can. Usually, herring gulls have pale irises and Thayer’s have dark irises. Some gulls are hybrids of two species. On the Kenai Peninsula this is common; virtually all of the gulls nesting at Skilak Lake are hybrids.

• Mew gulls are crow-sized (about 17 inches long). They have greenishyellow legs, yellow bills, and black and white wing tips. They may be confused with black-legged kittiwakes, which are about the same size but have black legs and black-tipped wings without white spots.

• Bonaparte’s gulls are pigeon-sized (about 13 inches long), with thin black bills and orange-red legs and feet. From April to August, they wear black hoods; the rest of the year they have obvious dark "ear" spots on their white heads. Bonaparte’s gulls can be confused with slightly larger Arctic and Aleutian terns (which also have black caps and gray backs), but both tern species have forked tails, and Arctic terns have red bills.


Winter and spring are good seasons to be particularly owl aware, as that’s the time of year that these birds are setting up territories and preparing to nest.

 

Owls The Kenai Peninsula’s boreal forests and coastal rainforests, tundra areas and marshes are home to several species of owls. Secretive, harder to spot, and less common than eagles, owls offer particularly special wildlife viewing opportunities.

Winter and spring are good seasons to be particularly owl-aware, as that’s the time of year that these birds are setting up territories and preparing to nest. During this season, owls call frequently during the dark hours.

108 Great gray owls live in boreal forest and wooded bogs on the Kenai Peninsula. These dusky gray owls are night-hunting specialists, relying almost exclusively on their outstanding sense of hearing to detect the movements of voles, their primary prey. On winter walks in the boreal forest, watch for plunge-holes in the snow where these large (up to 33" long) but lightweight (around 3 pounds) owls have pounced from above.

At 18-25" long and weighing up to 4 pounds, great horned owls are the Kenai Peninsula’s most powerful owls. They are the only large Alaskan owls with prominent ear tufts. Great horned owls hunt primarily by sight. Their populations fluctuate with the populations of their primary prey animals (snowshoe hares).

Short-eared owls are open-country birds, haunting marshes and tundra in search of voles and other small mammals, and small birds. They hunt primarily in evening and morning, but are active during the day as well. Watch for their distinctive fluttering flight.

Is that a hawk? Or is in an owl? The northern hawk owl lives up to its name, with its hawk-like silhouette, prominent perches and day-hunting habits. Hawk owls hunt a wide variety of small animals including rodents, hares and small birds. Watch for them in evergreen forests and along the edges of open areas such as meadows and bogs.

The smallest of the Kenai Peninsula’s common owls, the boreal owl is about the size of a robin. Like great gray owls, these white-spotted woodland owls hunt primarily by listening for the subtle sounds of their prey. Smaller yet, the northern saw-whet owl is increasing in numbers on the peninsula.

What to look for: Watch and listen for owls at dawn and dusk, in particular. Be alert for their distinctive upright, stubby silhouettes in bare branches. Watch for their silhouettes gliding or fluttering mothlike overhead.

What to listen for: You’re not likely to hear an owl fly overhead; their wings are designed for silent flight. But owls do make sounds. Listen for their voices on quiet evenings and nights in winter and spring. The larger owls (great gray owls and great horned owls) have distinctive, fairly deep hooting calls, while the hoots of the smaller owls such as boreal owls are much higher-pitched and rapid. Owls also make screeching and hissing noises when alarmed or agitated.


 

Corvids Ravens and their kin—crows, magpies and jays—are birds with curiosity and the capacity to solve problems. This serves them well in the wild—and also around people. Crows and ravens tear mussels from intertidal rocks, carry them aloft, and drop them on rocks, sidewalks and parking lots to break them open. They figure out how to open food containers, garbage cans, and backpacks.

Members of this bird family are known as corvids. They are monogamous and generally mate for life. Flocks forage cooperatively, working together to capture prey that is too much for a single bird.

Ravens are playful and social, and are outstanding aerial acrobats. They carry sticks and feathers aloft, dropping them and then swooping to catch them mid-air as they fall or drift in the wind. Ravens also play tag, barrel- rolling and matching each others’ flight patterns. They slide and roll on snowy slopes like children at recess. In addition to their raucous "caw" calls, ravens have a wide range of vocalizations, some quite musical. They gurgle, chirp, warble and imitate sounds.

The crow species of coastal Alaska, known as the Northwestern crow, is a different species than the American crow found across the rest of the continent. Northwestern crows are slightly smaller than American crows, and have deeper voices.

Black-billed magpies are striking iridescent black birds with long tails and bold white patches on their wings and bellies. Like their larger cousins, they’re gregarious, scrappy and talkative.

Both Steller’s jays and gray jays are found on the Kenai Peninsula. Steller’s jays are rich cobalt blue shading to black on their jaunty, crested heads. Gray jays have downy-soft gray and white plumage and no crests.


Ptarmigan are close relatives of grouse, but where spruce grouse are forest specialists, ptarmigan prefer the open country of alpine tundra.

 

 

Grouse & Ptarmigan Iconic birds of the boreal forest, spruce grouse are common on the Kenai Peninsula. They feed on a variety of berries, leaves, flowers and insects in summer, but their winter diet consists almost entirely of spruce needles. To collect the small gravel pieces that help them grind and digest this tough forage, they begin frequenting roadsides, streambanks, and lakeshores in August—so watch for them at dawn and dusk. They’re well-camouflaged, so you’ll have to look and listen carefully to spot them. Scan for broods of chicks following the female. Sometimes the male tags along as well.

A winter treat is the discovery of a grouse’s bed: look for a hole in the snow where the bird plunged down to sleep, then scan for the tracks and wingmarks the bird made when it emerged.

Ptarmigan are close relatives of grouse, but where spruce grouse are forest specialists, ptarmigan prefer the open country of alpine tundra. There are three species of ptarmigan on the Kenai Peninsula: willow ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird), rock ptarmigan, and white-tailed ptarmigan. In areas where all three species overlap, the birds segregate themselves by elevation, with the willows the lowest, followed by the rocks, and finally the white-tails.

As favored meals of many predators, including eagles, owls, coyotes and falcons, ptarmigan must blend with their surroundings as best they can. In summer, that means delicately dappled and speckled feathers that match the heathers, rocks and lichens of their mountain homes. In winter, that means the white of snow. All ptarmigans molt their body feathers at least twice each year, and male willow ptarmigans molt three times: in spring to breeding colors that include a chestnut cape and white belly, in summer to mottled browns and grays, and in fall to winter white.

Like grouse, ptarmigan have a varied diet that gets more restricted in winter. Summer brings berries, leaves, and insects. In winter they eat the buds of willow, alder and birch.


 

 

Warblers and Thrushes Spend time birdwatching on the Kenai Peninsula in summer and you’ll notice warblers. Only a little bigger than hummingbirds, these tiny birds dart like insects among the leaves, or perch to shout their surprisingly loud songs to the world. Many seem designed specifically to blend with the willow, birch and alder leaves, sporting olive-green or bright yellow feathers.

Warblers are bug specialists. Their beaks are tiny and tweezer-like, perfect for picking caterpillars, spiders, and other small prey from among the leaves. Some warblers have perfected the art of snatching insects in mid-air.

Birdwatchers on the Kenai will also find thrushes: the familiar, ubiquitous American robin; the similarly-sized (but more gaudily-colored) varied thrush of the coastal rainforests; Swainson’s thrush; gray-cheeked thrush; and the small, shy hermit thrush with its lovely eerie song around Seward.


 

Chickadees Instantly recognizable by their natty dark caps and black bibs, chickadees are common on the Kenai Peninsula. Because of their bold dispositions and acrobatic natures, they’re a great species to observe. Watch and listen for chickadees year-round, in forested habitats of all types. All Kenai Peninsula chickadee species give some variation of the familiar "tsikadee, dee, dee" call.

There are three species of chickadee known to breed on the peninsula. Blackcapped chickadees, the familiar chickadees of the "lower 48" can be seen in deciduous forests throughout the region. Boreal chickadees, with their brown caps and rusty flanks, are more common in dry forests of white spruce. Chestnut- backed chickadees are common in the coastal rainforest.

Chickadees nest in tree cavities excavated by woodpeckers and sapsuckers. They eat a wide variety of foods, including seeds, insects, and berries. They’re common visitors to birdfeeders. Like many seed-eating birds, they cache food, especially during the winter. A single chickadee can remember the locations of dozens of food caches.


 

Water Fowl Few places offer as much to nesting and migrating waterfowl as the Kenai Peninsula does. The western flatlands are pockmarked with thousands of lakes, ponds and wetlands, wild and inaccessible, that offer solitude and outstanding nesting habitat. Mountain lakes in the central and eastern part of the peninsula provide additional breeding territory. Huge estuaries provide crucial calories for migration. During summer, a visit to any lake or pond is a chance to watch nesting waterfowl, and in spring and fall you can watch the migration spectacle at marshes and estuaries. In winter, many waterfowl species can be seen along the saltwater shores and open waters of the Kenai River.

Three species of loons nest on the peninsula’s many lakes: common loons, Pacific loons, and red-throated loons. These large birds build mounded nests of shoreline debris just adjacent to the water (loons are master divers, but can not walk on land). Loon chicks can sometimes be seen riding on their parents’ backs.

On ponds and small lakes, you’ll find many species of ducks, including mallards, teal, pintails, shovelers, and wigeons. These dabbling ducks feed by tipping downward from the water’s surface with their tails pointing to the sky. When startled, they spring directly from the water into the air. Winter birders will find some dabbling ducks in saltwater.

Goldeneyes, mergansers, and buffleheads nest in hollow trees near ponds and lakes. These diving ducks submerge completely as they seek out the fish and aquatic insects that make up their diets. When disturbed, they usually must make short runs along the surface of the water to get airborne.Kachemak and Resurrection bays are important winter habitat for a variety of sea ducks, including the endangered Steller’s eider.

Swans—Alaska’s largest flying birds—are often seen here. Tundra swans and trumpeter swans are the two species that migrate through; watch for them at Potter’s Marsh, Tern Lake, and the Kenai River estuary. Some trumpeter swans remain on the peninsula to nest on larger lakes. A few swans winter in the region, and can be seen on the Kenai River where water remains unfrozen.


 

 ShoreBirds Southcentral Alaska is a critical point in the migration routes of many species of shorebirds, whose annual journeys from southern wintering grounds to northern nesting areas can span thousands of miles. Sandpipers, dunlin, godwits, whimbrels, curlews, plovers… the list of species can’t convey the enormity of the spectacle at the height of spring migration, when the mudflats and beaches of the Kenai River estuary, Turnagain Arm, Kachemak Bay, and other coastal hotspots are blanketed with thousands upon thousands of fluttering wings, darting legs, and bobbing heads.

During migration at these sites, every view can be filled with birds. Flocks of western sandpipers sweep across the landscape, shaping and reshaping, flashing dark and light as hundreds of birds turn as one. Dunlin quick-step through estuaries, their beaks stitching in and out of the mud like sewing machines at high speed, while turnstones skitter along rockier shores.

For the birds, the region’s estuaries and wetlands mean plenty of food: energy to carry them across hundreds or thousands of miles of inhospitable territory. For humans, this means outstanding birdwatching, including the chance to see not just lots of birds but unusual birds—stray migrants from Asia, for example. If you’re planning a visit to the Kenai Peninsula during shorebird migration, check ahead for birding tours and other events designed to help people learn about and appreciate this phenomenon. For example, Homer hosts an annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, featuring tours, presentations, and artwork.


 

Sand hill Cranes The return of sandhill cranes in the spring is a thrilling event. At first it’s just a faint sound, high in the distance… then the sound comes clearer—a kind of musical chortling, from hundreds of different throats. Then from the south, a flock of the huge, long-necked and long-legged birds comes winging across the spring landscape, singing their wild spring song.

The sandhill crane migration is a treasure of Kenai wildlife viewing. Thousands of these birds descend on the region’s wetlands each May. Some remain to nest, while others continue further north. In September, they gather into flocks to head back to their wintering sites in California’s Central Valley. To watch crane flocks rise in graceful spirals to migration altitude, calling all the way, is to witness a truly unique and thrilling wildlife event. Sandhill cranes average around 3 feet tall and have wingspans of up to 6 feet. Although they resemble fish-eating herons, they’re much more catholic in their tastes, feeding on berries, amphibians, fish, small mammals, seeds, and roots.

Another crane display well worth seeking out is their "dancing." When greeting each other (particularly in spring), sandhill cranes perform elaborate bowing, leaping and skipping dances that are a joy to watch.


 

FISHING CROWDS

Fish don’t draw just bears. When salmon are running, some of the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Sites are occupied by hundreds of anglers. Wildlife viewers may find those sites busier than preferred during the short fishing season (dates vary by run and location), but tranquil and great for viewing most of the year.

 

 

 

Salmon Are famous for their epic migrations—jumping waterfalls and braving hungry bears and hopeful anglers as they fight their way up rivers to spawn. Hatched in fresh water, they migrate downriver as juveniles and spend their adult lives feeding in the open ocean for two or more years. They then return to their home waters to lay eggs.

 The rivers and streams of the Kenai Peninsula collectively produce millions of salmon. Salmon are not confined to large waterways; streams small enough to step across are visited by spawning adults, and some even lay their eggs in the intertidal zones of tiny creeks. These prodigal children of the rivers bring more than eggs to the rivers of the Kenai. After spawning, they die, and their decaying bodies enrich the streams and forests with important marine-derived nutrients.

By caring for watersheds and critical spawning habitat and carefully managing the harvest of adults, Alaska has maintained healthy salmon populations and sustainable fisheries. No populations of Alaska salmon are listed as threatened or endangered.

Five species of Pacific salmon spawn on the Kenai Peninsula. All are routinely referred to by at least two common names.

Chinook, or king salmon are the largest salmon. Kings average between 20 and 40 pounds, but larger fish are not at all uncommon. The state record sport-caught Chinook was caught in the Kenai River. It weighed 97 pounds. A Chinook caught commercially in Southeast Alaska weighed 126 pounds.

Coho, or silver salmon average eight to 12 pounds. Coho turn from dimebright to dark maroon when they migrate from sea to freshwater.

Chum, or dog salmon average from seven to 18 pounds. Some chums spawn in intertidal waters and small coastal streams, while others travel tens of miles upriver. Spawning chums develop tiger-like red and green vertical stripes on their sides. Males develop strongly hooked jaws with prominent teeth.

Pink salmon, or "humpies," are the smallest salmon. They’re named for the prominent humped backs of the males. They are the most abundant salmon in Alaska.

Sockeye, or red salmon are named for their blood-red spawning coloration and red flesh. Averaging six to eight pounds, they are associated with lake systems. The Russian River supports perhaps the most famous of the Kenai Peninsula’s sockeye runs—where bright red fish leap waterfalls and dodge milling anglers, who can sometimes seem as abundant as the salmon.


 

Aquatic Invertebrates The rivers, streams, lakes and ponds of the Kenai Peninsula are full of bugs…and that’s a good thing. Aquatic insects form the basis for countless wildlife food chains. They’re the primary food of juvenile salmon and other small fish, which are in turn eaten by larger fish, birds, and mammals. No bugs… no bears! Many insects that you’ll find in streams and ponds are juvenile forms of bugs that spend their adult time zooming through the air. Others spend their whole lives underwater. Some are extremely tolerant of pollution and other poor conditions, while others are so sensitive that their presence is used as an indicator of good water quality.

Aquatic insects are wonderfully adapted to their watery environment. Mayflies and stoneflies are tiny crawling insects that can often be found clinging tightly to stones in fast currents. Some even have suction-cup-like structures on their undersides to help keep them in place. Some caddisflies build themselves tube-like cases out of sand grains, bark, needles or other debris, while others spin silken nets to trap drifting prey. Juvenile dragonflies and damselflies are fierce predators, ambushing other aquatic insects and even fish in ponds and slow-moving streams. Diving beetles are also predators, chasing their prey down like wolves. Perhaps the most infamous of aquatic insects are mosquito larvae, which can be seen backflipping their way through the stillest waters.

When you visit a stream, pond, or lake keep your eye out for these very tiny—but very important—wildlife. Sit quietly at the water’s edge and watch for beetles zipping among the aquatic plants, or caddisflies trundling along the bottom. Gently turn over a rock or two and look for clinging mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies or others.
 


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