Mammals | Marine Mammals |
Birds | Salmon | Aquatic
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
and brown (grizzly) bears are found on the Kenai Peninsula. Overall,
black bears are more abundant, although in some areas and times brown
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.
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.
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
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,
wolves began to
show signs of being
infested with dog
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.
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
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
and sliding on their
bellies. They can
swim about six miles
an hour—faster for
short distances by
porpoising at the
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
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
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.
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.
to Look For: Red
squirrels do not hibernate, so watch for their tracks and cone
cuttings throughout the winter.
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
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
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 are closely
related to bighorn sheep, and are part of the global genus
that includes the domestic
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Killer whales in Alaska waters are either residents or transients
(a third group, called off-shore, has rarely been documented in Alaska
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
to look for:
Fairly common in Southcentral waters, harbor porpoise are most often
spotted when their round backs gently break the surface with rolling
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
• 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
or silver salmon average eight to 12 pounds. Coho turn from dimebright
to dark maroon when they migrate from sea to freshwater.
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.
or "humpies," are the smallest salmon. They’re named for the prominent
humped backs of the males. They are the most abundant salmon in
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.
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
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