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1. Aleutian/Bering Sea Islands
Included in this region are the Aleutian Islands, extending westward from the Alaskan mainland for 1,100 miles, and the Bering Sea Islands, including the Pribilofs, St. Matthew, Hall, St. Lawrence, and Little Diomede. The Aleutian chain is volcanic in origin with a maritime climate in which wind is ever present. Vegetation at higher elevations consists of dwarf shrub communities, mainly of willow and crowberry. Meadows and marshes of herbs, sedges, and grasses are plentiful, and some islands have ericaceous bogs. Sea ice does not extend to the Aleutians, and permafrost is generally absent; however, sea ice is an important feature of the Bering Sea. Seabirds are a dominant component of this region's avifauna and several species, the Red-legged Kittiwake, the Least Auklet, and the Whiskered Auklet, breed only in this region. Southern Hemisphere procellariiforms occur regularly in the offshore waters of the southern Bering Sea and northern Gulf of Alaska during Alaskan summers. The breeding diversity of passerines (mainly the Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch), and shorebirds (including the Black Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, and Rock Sandpiper) is low. However, the McKay's Bunting, the only endemic Alaskan passerine, is restricted to this area.
Bering Sea Islands IBAs, Alaska
St. Lawrence Island (1), St. Matthew and Hall Islands (2), Pribilof Islands (3)
© Highlight: Remote windswept islands designated for the breeding McKay's Bunting (St. Matthew and Hall, possibly also St. Lawrence and Pribilofs), and for the Red-legged Kittiwake (75 percent of world population breeds in the Pribilof Islands).
© Designation: The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which administers much of the islands, is a National Natural Landmark.
© Location: Includes St. Matthew and Hall Islands (60ƒ N, 172ƒ W), the Pribilof Islands (57ƒ N, 170ƒ W), and St. Lawrence Island (63ƒ N, 170ƒ W).
© Size: Bering Sea Unit of the Alaska Martime Wildlife refuge is 170,000 acres. The Bering Sea Wilderness Area is 81,340 acres.
© Ownership: Private and federal: Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, Bering Sea Wilderness Area.
© Habitats: Windswept tundra, precipitous cliffs, some lower-lying coastal lagoons, and beaches.
© Land Use: Wilderness. Some subsistence hunting and offshore commercial fishing.
© Site Description: Two groups of remote, windswept islands separated by 200 miles of ocean, and one larger (100-mile-long) island that lies around 150 miles farther to the north. The islands are treeless and covered in low spongy tundra with grasses reaching a foot high in places. Some dwarf willows are also present. The northerly St. Lawrence and St. Matthew and Hall Islands (81,340 acres, of which 77,000 is St. Matthew) are surrounded by pack ice nine months of the year. The bleak climate is characterized by high winds and frequent fog. St. Matthew rises to 1,500 feet in altitude, and the steep sea cliffs of nearby Pinnacle Island reach 1,200 feet. The tiny, northerly Hall Island has a hauling-out site for Pacific walrus. St. Matthew has a lake with endemic landlocked chinook salmon, and singing voles and Arctic foxes are the common terrestrial mammals. Of the five islets that make up the more southerly Pribilof Islands, St. Paul is the most frequently visited by birders, although 90 percent of the breeding seabirds occur on nearby St. George. The low tundra of the islands is punctuated by rocky outcrops, and the volcanic soil is a reddish color. During the summer the landscape is brightened by a flush of colorful wildflowers, and there are two lakes on St. Paul where waterfowl and shorebirds gather. There is a colony of approximately one million northern fur seals, of which the majority are found on St. Paul, a herd of wild reindeer, and naturally occurring Arctic foxes. The Pribilofs are also home to a large Aleut-Russian community, many of whom are Russian Orthodox.
© Birds: The islands are best known for their seabird colonies with two million birds, principally Least Auklets, murres, and fulmars, in the northerly group, and three million in the Pribilofs where a similar mix of species occurs, with the notable addition of 75 percent of the world's Red-legged Kittiwakes. Other seabirds include the Black-legged Kittiwake, Crested and Parakeet Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins. The majority of the Red-legged Kittiwake breed on St. George Island, but the population has declined 50 percent from around 220,000 birds in the mid-1970s. The reason for this decline is not known but appears to be linked to food shortages at sea. The Red-legged Kittiwake has a larger eye than the Black-legged, and this may be an adaptation for specialized night feeding (although both species are known to feed at night). The Pribilofs are also known to birders as a location for Asian vagrants, although the islands are of little, if any, conservation significance for these species. McKay's Bunting has a tiny isolated breeding population on St. Matthew and Hall Islands, where it nests in rocky areas and along shingle beaches (probably also occasionally breeding on St. Lawrence Island). It is also found in the Pribilofs and may have bred there, and migrates to the western Alaska coast in October, returning to breed in May. The population is probably between 3,000 and 6,000 individuals. Other species of interest include the Red-faced Cormorant, Rock Sandpiper, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. St. Lawrence has more than 3.5 million breeding seabirds, including large numbers of Least Auklets (1.3 million at Singikpo Cape alone), as well as Crested Auklets, and Thick-billed and Common Murres. There are also large numbers of nesting Dunlin, and the Pribilofs have an endemic breeding race of the Rock Sandpiper. Recently discovered winter single-species concentrations of Spectacled Eiders in ice-free areas of the Bering Sea may include upward of 300,000 individuals.
© Conservation Issues: Seabird nesting success has been variable in recent years, probably in response to natural fluctuations in food availability, but the possibility that the decline of the Red-legged Kittiwake may be linked to overfishing requires research. In 1982, kittiwake nesting cliffs on St. George were purchased by the government and included in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Introduced Norway rats or mustelids could wreak havoc on seabirds and on the McKay's Bunting, and must not be allowed to establish a foothold. The McKay's Bunting must be considered vulnerable due to its tiny population and limited range. Any major environmental disaster (especially predator introduction) affecting St. Matthew Island could threaten the species' existence. The Fish and Wildlife Service has already developed a rat response plan for the islands, but the development of rat-proof nest boxes may be a useful precaution.
© Visitor Information: St. Paul is the most common destination for birders and along with the seabirds, and occasional McKay's Buntings there, Asian vagrants are a major attraction. Visit during the summer as seabirds are present only between May and August. Tours to the Pribilofs can be arranged by contacting Peninsula Airways at 800-448-4226 and the Tanadgusix Native Corporation at 907-278-2312 (three- to eight-day tours of St. Paul). The King Eider Hotel can be reached at 907-546-2477. The hotel on St. George can be reached at 907-859-9222.
Aleutian Islands/Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (4), Alaska
© Highlight: World alcid capital. Includes most of the world breeding population of the rare, endemic Whiskered Auklet and several huge "bird cities" with more than 200,000 breeding seabirds of more than a dozen species. Breeding Red-legged Kittiwakes on one island; significant wintering population of Emperor Geese. Some Steller's Eiders winter in the east. Bristle-thighed Curlews during migration. Classic birding for Asian vagrants on eastern islands.
© Designation: Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is a National Natural Landmark.
© Location: A chain of more than 2,400 islands stretching 1,000 miles from 163ƒ W to 172ƒ E, and lying between 52ƒ and 54ƒ N. Of the more than 2,400 islands, the following are the most significant for breeding seabirds: Buldir, Chagulak, Kaligagan, Kiska, Segula, and Gareloi.
© Size: Two million acres: Aleutian Islands Unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
© Ownership: Mostly federal: Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Adak is a Navy base, and Shemya is an Air Force base. Attu has a small Coast Guard base. Some land is privately owned by native corporations.
© Habitats: Low-lying, naturally treeless maritime tundra, snow-covered volcanoes, steep sea cliffs up to 200 feet.
© Land Use: Mostly wilderness. Some subsistence hunting. Commercial fisheries based out of Dutch Harbor, Unalaska. Some military installations.
© Site Description: The Aleutian Islands extend from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula in the east to remote Attu Island in the west. They comprise around twenty large islands, and more than 2,400 smaller islands, lying at the junction of the northern Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, where two crustal plates collide, generating substantial seismic and volcanic activity. The islands are formed from the peaks of an arc of submerged mountains, including 57 volcanoes (13 above 5,000 feet) more than 40 of which have been active during the last 250 years. The archipelago is surrounded by some of the most productive seas in the world, and birds provide a vital link in the ecological chain by contributing large amounts of nitrogen and phosphate through their droppings. The islands include the most southerly land area in Alaska, and are characterized by treeless maritime tundra, snow-capped peaks, boulder beaches, spits, tall sea cliffs, and large kelp beds close to shore. Summer brings colorful wildflowers, and the islands are brought alive by millions of birds, ten million of which are nesting seabirds. The climate is cold (winter average 30ƒF, summer average 50ƒF), wet, and inclement, with high winds, fog, and snow. The Aleutians lay to the south of the ancient land bridge known as Beringia, which allowed the free flow of wildlife (and people) between Asia and North America during ice incursions up to 11,000 years ago. During this period, the islands themselves were largely glaciated. Since then they have acted as a partial bridge for the movement of island-hopping colonists, and the prohibitive distance between islands has marooned some immigrant populations that have formed isolated subspecies. For example, the "Evermann's" Rock Ptarmigan (Attu), the "Yunaska" Rock Ptarmigan (Yunaska), and the Amak race of Song Sparrow, which are all of conservation concern. Five endemic plants have also been identified, including the federally endangered Aleutian shield fern.
© Birds: The easternmost island, Attu, is famous for Asian vagrants that are at the edge of, or outside, their normal ranges when they occur there. The Aleutian Islands support huge numbers of nesting seabirds (75 percent of Alaska's marine birds), and the surrounding seas are also important for seabirds, including the endangered Short-tailed Albatross outside the breeding season. Nesting alcids include Horned and Tufted Puffins; Parakeet, Whiskered, Least, Cassin's, and Crested Auklets; Marbled and Ancient Murrelets; Pigeon Guillemots; and Common and Thick-billed Murres. The Red-legged Kittiwake breeds on Buldir Island in the western Aleutians. More than one million Northern Fulmars, and 100,000 Cassin's Auklets nest on Chagulak, and Kaligagan holds 100,000 Tufted Puffins. Kiska has more than 1.1 million Least Auklets, and more than 300,000 Crested Auklets. Other large colonies of the Least Auklet can be found on Segula (475,000) and Gareloi (402,000). In total, the Rat Islands (Buldir, Kiska, and Segula) have more than 5.5 million nesting seabirds. Fork-tailed and Leach's Storm-Petrels, Aleutian Tern, Rock Sandpiper, Black Turnstone, Rock Ptarmigan, Tundra Swan, and Red-faced Cormorant also nest.
© Conservation Issues: After 1741, the spread of European influence over the indigenous Aleut people, the exploitation of sea otters for fur, and the consumption of other wildlife began the process of permanently changing the natural ecosystems of the Aleutian Islands. The introduction of red and (primarily) Arctic foxes, initially by Russian, and then by American fur trappers, resulted in the near extinction of the "Aleutian" Canada Goose after more than 450 islands had been stocked with foxes. Subsequent removal of foxes has restored goose populations (which had survived on just one island), and improved nesting success for seabirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, and ptarmigan. Today, introduced foxes exist only on 46 islands. Other introduced mammals such as caribou on Adak Island, and Arctic ground squirrel on Unalaska and Kavalga, may present a threat to local ecosystems, but are likely to have little, if any, direct impact on birds. Marine contamination, overfishing, changes in marine ecosystems caused by climate change, floating plastics, fishing nets, and long-lining all present threats to seabirds. Human disturbance could also impact nesting species in some cases. There has been recent documentation of Norway rats killing thousands of nesting auklets on Kiska Island; biologists estimate that the colonies there could be destroyed within 20 years. One researcher has stated "The number of seabirds that are being killed by rats each year (on Kiska) are more than what were killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill." The Fish and Wildlife Service is developing a plan to eliminate the rats through the use of poison bait dropped from aircraft.
© Visitor Information: Commercial flights from Anchorage reach Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, where the only commercial lodgings in the Aleutians can be found. Flights also go to Adak, and Shemya, but these islands are controlled by the military, and visitors can travel there only with military clearance (Navy and Air Force respectively). Some areas are owned by native corporations and should be treated as private property. The Coast Guard operates a small base on Attu, but birders can no longer visit the island. For general visitor information, contact: Refuge Manager, Aleutian Islands Unit, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, Box 5251, NAS Adak, AK, FPO Seattle, WA 98791, 907-592-2406/2407, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Western Alaska
This region consists of the subarctic Coastal Plain of western Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula mountains. Wet and mesic graminoid herbaceous communities dominate the lowlands and numerous ponds, lakes, and rivers dot the landscape. Tall shrub communities are found along rivers and streams, and low shrub communities occupy uplands. Forests of spruce and hardwoods penetrate the region on its eastern edge. Permafrost is continuous except in southern parts of the region. High densities of breeding waterfowl and shorebirds are found on the coastal plain of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. Intertidal areas there, and lagoons on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, support millions of shorebirds during migration, including the Dunlin, Western Sandpiper, Red Knot, and Bar-tailed Godwit. The coast of the Alaska Peninsula supports high concentrations of wintering sea ducks, including the Steller's Eider, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Surf Scoter, and Black Scoters. Passerine diversity is greatest in tall, riparian shrub habitats, where Arctic Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrushe, and Blackpoll Warbler nest. The Gyrfalcon and Rough-
legged Hawk nest along the riverine cliffs. Mainland sea cliffs are occupied by nesting colonies of the Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, and Pelagic Cormorant.
Seward Peninsula (1), Alaska
© Highlight: A remote wilderness that provides the bulk of the world breeding habitat for Bristle-thighed Curlews. Wintering McKay's Buntings.
© Location: The 20,000-square-mile peninsula lies at approximately 65ƒ N, and between 162ƒ and 168ƒ W, and is surrounded to the north by the Chukchi Sea and to the south by the Bering Sea. The extreme northern tip of the peninsula (Cape Espenberg) lies inside the Arctic Circle.